A viral Vanity Fair article that suggested traders may have had foreknowledge about a series of geopolitical events — and profited handsomely from them — is “patently false,” according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
On Thursday, author William Cohan published an article that linked mysterious trading in S&P 500 (^GSPC) futures contracts to market-moving developments like the September 13 drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, the U.S.-China trade war and Hong Kong’s independence protests.
Euphemistically called “chaos trades,” the article alleged someone connected to President Donald Trump’s administration may have helped investors front-run trades based on illicit or insider knowledge of world events, who then reaped hundreds of millions in profit. The story reverberated across social media, with some observers saying it implicated the besieged Trump administration in a new ethical quandary.
But in a tersely worded statement issued late Friday, the CME — which regulates S&P futures contract trading — said it “regularly monitors its markets for suspicious activity,” and dismissed the allegations. A number of Wall Street analysts have also called the story’s thesis into question.
Trump’s prolific use of Twitter to make policy statements routinely ratchets up trading volatility, one reason why the Vanity Fair article called into question some of the trading surrounding his tweets on market-moving events.
“As it relates to the Vanity Fair article published on October 17, 2019, regarding activities in the E-mini S&P 500 futures contract, the allegations about the trading activity are patently false,” the exchange said. “These transactions were entered into by a significant number of diverse market participants.”
In the days since the article’s publication, a few market observers have chipped away at its premise. Since futures are hedges against other market positions, it’s likely a gain in one position just offsets losses in another.
George Pearkes, a global macro strategist for Bespoke Investment Group, wrote an analysis published by Business Insider that the E-mini trading represented “typical futures trading activity” derived from multiple investors — and that it was virtually impossible to pinpoint exactly when those trades were executed, or by whom. He added that the article presented “flimsy claims” advanced mostly by antipathy toward Trump.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance on Friday, Cohan defended the observations he articulated in his article. He pointed out that traders who actively create positions in S&P minis were the ones who flagged the suspicious nature of the trades.
“Human nature would dictate that if you were able to make $180 million profit on a smart trade in a few days or a week, you’re going to take that profit and move on to the next thing,” he told YFi PM.
“We certainly don’t know who placed these trades, and that’s something the regulators should be looking into,” Cohan said, backing calls for an investigation as “totally appropriate.”