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JPMorgan Gold Desk Ripped Off Market for Years, Jurors Told

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(Bloomberg) — The precious-metals business at JPMorgan Chase & Co. operated for years as a corrupt group of traders and sales staff who manipulated gold and silver markets for the benefit of the bank and its prized clients, a federal prosecutor told jurors in Chicago.

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“This case is about a criminal conspiracy inside one of Wall Street’s largest banks,” said Lucy Jennings, a prosecutor with the Justice Department’s fraud section. “To make more money for themselves, they decided to cheat.”

The trial of three former JPMorgan employees, including the veteran head of precious metals, Michael Nowak, is the most ambitious effort yet in a years long US crackdown on market manipulation and spoofing. Unlike past cases of alleged trading fraud, the trio is accused of a racketeering conspiracy under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — a criminal law more commonly used against the Mafia rather than global banks.

Nowak, gold trader Gregg Smith and Jeffrey Ruffo, an executive director who specialized in hedge fund sales, are charged with racketeering conspiracy as well as conspiring to commit price manipulation, wire fraud, commodities fraud and spoofing from 2008 to 2016. All together, Nowak and Smith have been accused of more than two dozen crimes. The three defendants face decades in prison if convicted on all counts. Another trader, Christopher Jordan, who was charged alongside them, is scheduled to go to trial in November.

Spoofing, banned by law in 2010, involves huge orders that traders cancel before they can be executed in a bid to push prices in the direction they want to make their genuine trades profitable. While canceling orders isn’t illegal, it is unlawful as part of a strategy intended to dupe others.

“When this trick works, there is somebody else on the other side of the deal that lost,” Jennings told jurors in her opening statement. “Somebody got ripped off.” She added, “We will prove that all three defendants knew from day one that this trading was wrong and did it anyways.”

Read More: JPMorgan’s ‘Big Hitters’ of Gold Market Face Trial Over Spoofing

Lawyers for Nowak and Smith offered jurors a much different view, saying prosecutors had misrepresented how and why orders are made in the precious-metals market, and insisted that the defendants had never intended to deceive anyone. They said the government had cherry-picked trading data to create the false impression that the traders were spoofing when they were actually placing real, executable, open-market orders.

“The government’s simple narrative doesn’t tell the full story — far from it,” David Meister, Nowak’s attorney, said in his opening statement.

Jonathan Cogan, Smith’s attorney, said gold and other precious metals were traded in a marketplace where computer-generated algorithms can buy and sell commodities in one-millionth of a second. To compete with the so-called “algos,” and to execute trades on behalf of JPMorgan clients, Smith routinely had buy and sell orders at the same time, Cogan said. While some orders were only active for seconds, that’s “an eternity” in such a fast-moving market, he said.

According to Meister, evidence presented at the trial will show that the vast majority of all market orders are canceled, and the typical lifespan of an order is just a couple of seconds.

The defense teams also said there is no evidence, including in JPMorgan chat logs or recorded phone calls, showing what traders Nowak and Smith were thinking, which means prosecutors can’t prove they intended cancel orders before executing them. “In order to win this case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt what was going on in Mr. Smith’s mind all those years ago,” Cogan said.

Ruffo’s lawyer, Guy Petrillo, said his client was a JPMorgan salesman who worked directly with customers who wanted to buy or sell precious metals, and that his job was to bring in client orders. Ruffo never placed any of those orders, wasn’t involved in trading execution, and that his compensation wasn’t linked to the profitability of the bank’s trading activities, Petrillo said.

Key Witnesses

Jennings said electronic communications and other evidence will show how the three collaborated to make sure their trading impacted markets in their favor. She said the government will call upon former traders who worked under Nowak or with the defendants. That includes John Edmonds, a former JPMorgan trader who previously pleaded guilty on charges linked to price manipulation.

Another likely witness for the government is Corey Flaum, who worked with Smith and Ruffo at Bear Stearns before it was acquired by JPMorgan during the financial crisis. Flaum pleaded guilty in 2019 to attempted price manipulation.

Following opening statements, the Justice Department said its first witness is likely to be John Scheerer, who will testify on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s operations and futures markets mechanisms.

Prosecutors allege Smith and Ruffo brought their illicit trading tactics from Bear Stearns to JPMorgan and their trading strategy was quickly adopted by Nowak and others. The Bear Stearns traders’ twist was to place multiple orders, at different prices, that in aggregate were substantially larger than the genuine order — a technique the government calls layering. The orders, made in rapid succession after the genuine order, would be canceled as soon as the genuine order was filled.

Thousands of Trades

Smith, a lead gold trader, executed some 38,000 layering sequences over the years, or about 20 a day, prosecutors said in filings. Nowak himself primarily traded options, but he would dip into the futures market to hedge those positions. He tried his hand at layering in September 2009, according to filings, and went on to use the technique some 3,600 times.

While some of the transactions started before lawmakers banned spoofing, the tactic allegedly continued to be widespread with the JPMorgan traders engaging in spoofing more than 50,000 times in almost a decade, prosecutors said.

Ruffo, meanwhile, is alleged to have told Smith where he needed the market in order to fulfill orders involving at least two of his hedge fund clients — Moore Capital Management and Tudor Investment Corp., according to court filings. Lawyers for Ruffo and the others said they may call traders from those hedge funds as well as one from Soros Fund Management to testify about transactions. Their witness list also includes six current and former JPMorgan sales staff on the precious metals desk — two of whom supervised Ruffo.

Spoofing Crackdown

The government crackdown by the Justice Department and the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission has nabbed more than two dozen individuals and firms, from day traders operating out of their bedrooms to sophisticated high-frequency trading shops and big banks including Bank of America Corp. and Deutsche Bank AG.

Not every case was successful. In 2018, a jury acquitted former a UBS Group AG trader of conspiring to engage in commodities fraud, and in 2019, a case against a Chicago programmer who created spoofing software ended in mistrial and charges were dropped. In the JPMorgan case, bank fraud charges against the three defendants were thrown out by the judge.

Still, the government has had many more wins. Two former precious-metals traders at BofA’s Merrill Lynch were found guilty of spoofing by a jury in Chicago last year, and in 2020, two Deutsche Bank AG traders were convicted.

In September 2019, JPMorgan admitted wrongdoing and agreed to pay more than $920 million to resolve US claims of market manipulation in both precious metals and Treasuries. It was the largest ever sanction against a bank over spoofing by a wide margin. JPMorgan also agreed to help the Justice Department prosecute its former employees.

(Updates with comments from defense attorneys.)

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American Weed Stocks Are Cheap. They’re About to Get a Sales Bump.

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However bad the year has been for most stocks, it has been especially harsh for state-licensed cannabis sellers.

In just the past month, the


AdvisorShares Pure US Cannabis


exchange-traded fund (ticker: MSOS), which tracks America’s multistate operators—or MSOs—fell 25%, while the


S&P 500


dropped 7%.

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How Do Mega Backdoor Roths Work?

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A mega backdoor Roth is a unique 401(k) rollover strategy that’s designed for people whose incomes would ordinarily keep them from saving in a Roth Individual Retirement Account. The advantage of using a Roth IRA to save for retirement is being able to make tax-free qualified withdrawals. But not everyone can contribute to these accounts; higher-income earners are excluded. That’s where the mega backdoor Roth comes into play. If you have a 401(k) you’d like to roll over, you could use this strategy to enjoy the tax benefits of a Roth IRA without having income be an obstacle.

Make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity to maximize your retirement assets by working with a financial advisor.

Roth Account Basics

Before diving into the specifics of a mega backdoor Roth, there are a few things to know about Roth accounts, including Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

First, these accounts are both funded with after-tax dollars. That means when you make qualified withdrawals later, you won’t pay income tax on the money since you already paid it upfront. This is the key characteristic of Roth accounts and what makes them so appealing to investors who anticipate being in a higher tax bracket at retirement.

Next, your ability to contribute to a Roth 401(k) is not restricted by your income. But it is for a Roth IRA. For the 2021 tax year, you must be within these modified adjusted gross income limits to make a full Roth IRA contribution:

  • Single filers: MAGI of $125,000 or less

  • Married filing jointly: MAGI of $198,000 or less

  • Head of household: MAGI of $125,000 or less

You can make partial contributions above those income limits. But your ability to contribute phases out completely once your MAGI hits $140,000 (if you file single or head of household) or $208,000 if you’re married and file a joint return. For 2021, the full contribution allowed is $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for savers aged 50 and older.

Finally, Roth 401(k) accounts are subject to required minimum distribution rules just like traditional 401(k) accounts. This rule requires you to begin taking money from your 401(k) starting at age 72. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is not subject to RMD rules.

What Is a Backdoor Roth?

A backdoor Roth offers a work-around for people whose incomes are above the limits set by the IRS. When you execute a backdoor Roth, you roll money over from a traditional IRA to a Roth account. This way, you won’t have to pay taxes on your retirement savings in the Roth IRA when it’s time to make withdrawals. And you’re not subject to required minimum distribution rules either.

But there is a catch. You have to pay income tax on the money you roll over to a Roth account. So while you could save money on taxes in retirement, you’re not escaping the tax liability of a traditional IRA altogether.

How a Mega Backdoor Roth Works

A mega backdoor Roth is a backdoor Roth that’s designed specifically for people who have a 401(k) plan at work. This type of backdoor Roth allows you to contribute up to $38,500 to a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k) in 2021. This is in addition to the regular annual contribution limits the IRS allows for these types of accounts. To execute a mega backdoor Roth, two conditions have to be met. Your 401(k) plan needs to allow the following:

You can ask your plan administrator whether your 401(k) meets these criteria. And if your plan doesn’t allow for in-service withdrawals or distributions, you could still attempt a mega backdoor Roth if you plan to leave your job in the near future.

If your plan meets the criteria, then you can take the next steps to execute a mega backdoor Roth. This is typically a two-step process that involves maxing out after-tax 401(k) contributions, then withdrawing the after-tax portion of your account to a Roth IRA.

Again, whether you can follow through on the second step depends on whether your plan allows in-service withdrawals. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to wait until you separate from your employer to roll over any after-tax money in your 401(k) into a Roth IRA.

You also need to watch out for the pro rata rule. This IRS rule says you can’t only withdraw pre- or post-tax contributions from a traditional 401(k). So if you’re completing a mega backdoor Roth, you couldn’t just withdraw post-tax contributions if your account holds both pre- and post-tax funds. In that case, you may have to roll over the entire balance to a Roth IRA.

Benefits of a Mega Backdoor Roth

There are three key benefits associated with executing a mega backdoor Roth. First, you can contribute significantly more to a Roth IRA upfront this way. For 2021, the contribution limit is $38,500 on top of the regular annual contribution limit and any catch-up contribution limits that may apply.

You’ll need to know the maximum amount you’re allowed to contribute to the after-tax portion of your 401(k). So for 2021, the IRS allows a maximum contribution of $58,000 or $64,500 if you’re 50 or older. You’d subtract your 401(k) contributions and anything your employer adds in matching contributions to figure out how much you could add to the after-tax portion.

Next, you can enjoy tax-free withdrawals in retirement. This is a benefit you may otherwise not being able to get if your income is too high to contribute to a Roth IRA. By reducing your tax liability in retirement, you can help your investment dollars go further. And you may have a larger legacy of wealth to pass on to future generations.

Finally, a mega backdoor Roth IRA would allow you to sidestep required minimum distribution rules. This means that you could retain control over when you choose to take distributions from a Roth IRA.

So who is a mega backdoor Roth right for? You may consider this move if you:

  • Have an eligible 401(k) plan at work

  • Have maxed out traditional 401(k) contributions

  • Are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA because of your income

  • Have additional money that you want to invest for retirement

  • Want to leverage the higher Roth IRA contribution limits allowed by a mega backdoor rollover

Talking to your financial advisor can help you decide if a mega backdoor Roth makes sense. And your 401(k) plan administrator should be able to tell you if it’s possible, based on your plan’s guidelines.

Mega Backdoor Roth Alternatives

If you can’t execute a mega backdoor Roth because your plan doesn’t allow it, there are other ways to increase your retirement savings. For example, you could try a regular backdoor Roth instead. This might be something to consider if you still want to enjoy the tax benefits of a Roth IRA but your plan doesn’t fit the criteria for a mega rollover. You could also elect to make Roth 401(k) contributions to your retirement plan at work. This way, you still get the benefit of contributing after-tax dollars and making tax-free withdrawals. You’d be subject to the regular contribution limits and you’d still have to take the required minimum distribution. But that may outweigh the value of tax savings in retirement.

Investing in a Health Savings Account (HSA) is another option. While these accounts are not specifically designed for retirement, they can yield multiple tax benefits. Contributions are tax-deductible and grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for eligible healthcare expenses. And at 65, you can take money out of an HSA for any reason without a tax penalty. You’ll just owe ordinary income tax on any withdrawals that are not used for healthcare expenses.

Finally, you could open a taxable brokerage account to invest. This doesn’t necessarily save you money on taxes since you’ll owe capital gains tax when you sell investments at a profit. But it could help you to diversify your investments and there are no limits on how much you can invest in a brokerage account annually.

Bottom Line

A mega backdoor Roth strategy could work well for higher-income earners who want to take advantage of Roth account benefits. There are certain rules that need to be followed to make it work, however, so you may want to talk to your plan administrator or a tax professional before going ahead. Keep in mind also that even if you can’t complete a mega backdoor Roth rollover, you still have other options for growing retirement savings.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • If you’re saving for retirement in a 401(k) or IRA, pay attention to the fees you’re paying. For instance, check the expense ratios for each fund you’re invested in to understand how much you pay to own that fund on an annual basis. You can then compare that to the fund’s performance to determine whether the fees are justified. Also, consider any administrative fees you might be paying and how those affect your net returns.

  • Consider talking to your financial advisor about a mega backdoor Roth and whether it could be right for you. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. You can get your personalized recommendations in minutes just by answering a few simple questions. If you’re ready, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/designer491

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Alibaba Is Tumbling. Chinese Tech Stocks Have a New Headache.

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Chinese tech stocks were tumbling on Monday as two of the embattled sector’s leading players faced fresh fines from market regulators over disclosure rules.

China’s State Administration for Market Regulation announced Sunday a wave of penalties for improperly reporting past deals, in breach of competition law.


Alibaba


(ticker: BABA) and


Tencent


(0700.H.K.) were among the companies fined as a result.

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