Front-running needs to be eradicated
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18 June 2010Anshuman Jaswal
‘Front-running', the practice of traders or brokers benefiting from stock market transactions by leaking information of the trades to some of the other market participants in advance, has long been suspected in the Indian stock markets. I have had discussions with the domestic buy side in which they have taken me through the various stages of an equity transaction and pointed out the pre-trade, trade and post-trade stages in which there can be leakage of information that can be profited from. What is worse, the players who suffer from the practice just shrug their shoulders and describe it as something they can do little about. Similarly, when I have spoken of Indian brokerages that have become more capable technologically being used by foreign buy side firms, the same issue has turned up. The latter is wary of the possibility of insider trading or front-running damaging their profitability. Against this back drop, the ban on a trader of HDFC Mutual Fund by the capital market regulator, SEBI, on the basis of 38 instances of wrong doing over 24 trading days between April and July 2007 when the three investors colluding with the trader bought or sold shares before HDFC AMC’s trades were executed, is a welcome development. While it could be merely an initial move in cleansing the markets of an undesirable practice, it shows the capability and the willingness of the regulator to punish participants that undertake front-running. For the traders or brokerages that engage in such actions, it is crucial to understand the damage they are doing to the reputation of their firms and indeed the market as a whole by engaging in such practices. Firms that are very well capable of competing on an equal footing in the markets are being handicapped by the existence and indeed the mere talk of front-running. Such unfair practices are self-defeating and needed to be weeded out. The regulator is to be complimented on taking such an action and we hope that future transgressions would be similarly caught and punished. Furthermore, both buy side and sell side firms need to ensure that they have sufficient checks and balances in place to help the regulator eradicate the practice. Similarly, whistle-blowing needs to be encouraged, not just by individuals, but also firms that believe that their brokers or traders have let them down.