US Fed nabs HSBC official over Cairn-Vedanta insider trading

US Federal agents caught an HSBC Holdings Plc executive by surprise as he prepared to fly out of New York's Kennedy airport around 7:30 pm Tuesday, arresting him for an alleged front-running scheme involving a $3.5 billion currency transaction in 2011.

Mark JohnsonMark Johnson, HSBC's global head of foreign exchange cash trading in London, was held in a Brooklyn jail overnight. The US unsealed a complaint against Johnson and Stuart Scott, the bank's former head of currency trading in Europe, making them the first individuals to be charged in the long-running probe.

The arrest and charges are a coup for the US Justice Department, which has struggled to build cases against individuals in its investigation into foreign-exchange trading at global banks. The UK Serious Fraud Office also found it difficult to make cases against currency traders and announced in March that it was dropping its efforts.

 ''This case demonstrates the criminal division's commitment to hold corporate executives, including at the world's largest and most sophisticated institutions, responsible for their crimes,'' Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in an e-mailed statement.

The two allegedly conspired to take advantage of inside information about an unidentified company's plans to sell part of its stake in an Indian subsidiary, according to the complaint. The client was Cairn Energy Plc, which was selling the unit to Vedanta Resources Plc, according to people with knowledge of the transaction.

HSBC was hired to trade about $3.5 billion in proceeds of the sale to pounds. Johnson and Scott began buying pounds in the days before the transaction, anticipating that they would cause the price of pounds to spike -- a practice known as ''ramping'' -- then execute the transaction, making the pounds they'd bought earlier more valuable, according to the complaint.

Scott and Johnson - his supervisor at the time - told the client the deal should take place at 3 pm ''so there's an element of surprise'' to get a better rate, according to the complaint, which quoted from recorded phone calls and messages between the two and their client. There was less liquidity at the 3 pm fix than the one at 4pm, making it easier to manipulate, though they told their client they were about the same.

They and other traders they directed ramped up the price, sending the pound to its highest in two days at 2:56 p.m. London time. When Scott told Johnson the client was still going ahead with the full transaction despite the spiking price, Johnson said ''Ohhhh, f***ing Christmas,'' according to the complaint. In the end, HSBC and the men's internal accounts reaped about $8 million from the front-running, according to Brooklyn US Attorney Robert Capers.

''The defendants allegedly betrayed their client's confidence, and corruptly manipulated the foreign exchange market to benefit themselves and their bank,'' Caldwell said. Johnson and Scott blamed the pound's rise on an unidentified Russian bank in their conversations with the client afterwards, according to the complaint.

Rob Sherman, an HSBC spokesman, and Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment. Johnson and his lawyer, Frank Wohl, didn't immediately respond to calls seeking comment. Contact information for Scott wasn't immediately available in U.K. directories.

Both men are British citizens. The US complaint was kept under seal for fear Johnson, 50 and a resident of both the US and UK, would flee if he heard about it, according to the document. Agents moved quickly to arrest Johnson, who works in London and New York, to avoid difficulties that could arise in extraditing him. According to Bloomberg, HSBC wasn't made aware of the plans to arrest Johnson.

Scott left the bank in 2014 after it agreed to pay $618 million to settle currency-rigging investigations by the UK Financial Conduct Authority and the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The 43-year-old remains in the UK, and the US is likely to seek extradition, according to Bloomberg.

Johnson's arrest comes more than a year after five global banks pleaded guilty to charges related to the rigging of currency benchmarks. HSBC, though it settled regulatory cases, is still being investigated by the Justice Department. The bank has set aside $1.3 billion for possible settlements, according to an August filing.