How the Flash Crash Trader made $50m – and lost it again

Navinder Singh Sarao’s investments included backing an Irish entrepreneur’s online gaming business

British trader Navinder Singh Sarao outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court, London, in August 2015, after he was granted bail on charges of helping trigger a multibillion-dollar US stock market flash crash. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

British trader Navinder Singh Sarao outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court, London, in August 2015, after he was granted bail on charges of helping trigger a multibillion-dollar US stock market flash crash. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

 

It took Navinder Singh Sarao a long time to accept that he might have been scammed out of $50 million. Stuck in London’s Wandsworth prison, wracked with anxiety and unable to sleep, the realisation dawned on the man dubbed the “Flash Crash Trader” as slowly as spring turned to summer outside the barred window of his jail cell.

The trauma of the past few weeks had been difficult to process. On April 20th, 2015, the slight, doe-eyed 36-year-old had dozed off peacefully in the same suburban bedroom he’d slept in since he was a boy. The next day he was arrested and taken to a police station, where he was charged with 22 counts of fraud and market manipulation carrying a maximum sentence of 380 years.

According to the US government, the British day trader had made tens of millions of dollars using an illegal practice called spoofing, including, fatefully, on the morning of May 6th, 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell almost 1,000 points in minutes before bouncing back. The extent of Sarao’s culpability for the “flash crash” is fiercely contested, but the incident exposed the shaky foundations on which the hyper-fast, computer-dominated financial markets now rest.

Sarao’s bail was set at £5.05 million. It was a hefty sum but, according to the accounts of his company, Nav Sarao Futures Limited, he’d earned £30 million in the previous five years. Newspaper reports, in which Sarao was dubbed “The Hound of Hounslow”, speculated that he’d be back with his family in the shabby West London borough by the weekend. Instead, the nightmare got worse.

Tied up

After four months of dead ends, his legal team struck a deal with the authorities: If the US Justice Department and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission agreed not to oppose a reduction in bail to £50,000, the firm would act as a bounty hunter, taking on responsibility for tracking down the missing millions on the condition that its fees be paid if it did.

They were going down a rabbit hole. A review of Sarao’s investments from 2005 to the present day, based on dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, reveals another twist in an already remarkable story. Navinder Sarao, the trading savant accused of sabotaging the world’s financial markets from his bedroom, may himself have been the naïve victim of what his lawyers portray as a series of cons that stripped him of almost every cent he earned.

Sarao declined to comment for this article. His lawyer, Roger Burlingame of Kobre & Kim in London, told a US judge in November that all of the defendant’s assets “have been stolen”. Sarao invested in ventures from which he, the law firm and the CFTC had been unable to recover the funds, Burlingame said. “Basically, he has some extraordinary abilities with respect to pattern recognition and certain sorts of mathematical abilities, but he has some fairly severe social limitations.”

Sarao’s trading career started inauspiciously in 2002 at Futex, a fledgling outfit in an unglamorous office an hour from the City of London that housed wannabe traders in exchange for as much as 50 per cent of their profit. In a roomful of recent college graduates and drifters, Sarao stood out from the pack.

“Nav was always going to be the kind of person that would be legendary in some way,” Futex chairman Paolo Rossi said in an interview with Bloomberg TV after Sarao’s arrest. He had “the potential to be remembered as one of the world’s greatest traders”.

Serious money

Former colleagues talk about Sarao’s frugality: his scruffy clothes, his reluctance to spend money on cars and watches, his abstemious eating habits. He learned early at Futex that withdrawing cash ate into his bankroll and reduced the size of trades he could place.

That near-obsessive drive to hold on to as much of his wealth as possible can also be seen in the way he conducted his business affairs. Looking to minimise his tax bill, he was introduced by his accountant to John Dupont, a director at the London arm of an Isle of Man-based financial advisory firm called Montpelier Tax Consultants.

Dupont, then in his mid-30s, was a high-energy salesman whose accent veered from upper class gent to Guy Ritchie cockney depending on who he was speaking with, a former employee recalls. Operating from an office on Cockspur Street in London’s West End, members of his team cold-called contractors, day traders and bankers and tried to enlist them in a range of plans to minimise their tax bills, documents show.

The aim was to identify loopholes before they were closed. One former Montpelier employee said he coaxed wavering customers to sign up by promising to pay their legal bills in the event of a clampdown by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Everyone at the firm thought he was Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, the person said.

Self-employed traders were particularly good prospects because they were predisposed to high levels of risk. And Sarao, an absent-minded dreamer with an unerring gift for making money who would later be diagnosed with Asperger’s, would prove to be the ultimate mark.

Divident-stripping

Among Dupont’s crew was Miles MacKinnon, a polished so-called introducer who had left school for a stint as a rugby player before heading to the City of London. For four months in 2010, MacKinnon became the only other director of Sarao’s firm.

Around the same time, Sarao set up two employee benefit trusts in the Caribbean island of Nevis, according to a document filed in Sarao’s case. He ploughed his earnings into those trusts, then gave himself interest-free loans to trade with and live on, the adviser said. The arrangement meant Sarao all but avoided paying corporate taxes. One vehicle was named the “Nav Sarao Milking Markets Fund”.

Dupont and MacKinnon said in an email that they “did not introduce or advise” on the Nevis trusts.

Sarao had an uncanny ability to attract controversial characters. He sought advice from tax specialist Andrew Thornhill, who in 2015 would be charged by the British barristers’ industry group with five counts of professional misconduct. And, as the Wall Street Journal reported, one of Sarao’s trusts was, for a period, affiliated with David Cosgrove, the Irish director of Belvedere Management who has been barred by Mauritius authorities from serving as a company officer because of regulatory violations. Thornhill declined to comment. Cosgrove didn’t respond to emails.

Gravy train

MacKinnon and Dupont – along with a third partner, Ryan Morgan – then founded MacKinnon Dupont Morgan, which was later reborn as MD Capital Partners. The firm describes itself on its website as a boutique private equity firm.

They leased an office in Mayfair, home of hedge funds, Michelin-starred restaurants and private members’ clubs. MacKinnon joined the Worshipful Company of International Bankers and the executive board of the Special Olympics. He and Dupont set up about a dozen companies between them, focusing on industries such as renewable energy.

Dupont and MacKinnon said in their email that they “never made, or introduced investments to projects that are purely driven by tax breaks” and that at the time they got involved in renewables there weren’t any tax incentives in place. Morgan, who left the firm, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

By 2011, Sarao had trebled his assets to £42.5 million. He agreed to become an investor in an Isle of Man-based entity called Cranwood Holdings, set up to acquire land in Scotland that would one day house wind farms, according to two advisers to Sarao. Documents on the enterprise filed in the British dependency are light on detail, but the advisers say Sarao put about £12 million in Cranwood – money they say Dupont and MacKinnon could access.

Dupont and MacKinnon said in their email that Sarao conducted “substantial independent due diligence” before investing in Cranwood and that he approved all of its payments. One of their companies, Wind Energy Scotland, is funded by and provides project management services to Cranwood.

Exotic ventures

Sometime in 2012, Sarao was introduced – again through Dupont and MacKinnon – to a squat, intense Mexican named Jesus Alejandro Garcia Alvarez, who was looking for investors for his company IXE Group. Garcia said he was the scion of a family of billionaire landowners and industrial-scale farmers with swaths of land around the world. He had arrived in Zurich from Latin America a few years earlier and had been working hard to build a reputation ever since.

IXE was conceived as a one-stop shop for high-net-worth individuals, offering services ranging from asset management to event planning to advice on private schools. Then, around the time Sarao met Garcia, the company’s website underwent a radical overhaul. Gone were the concierge services. IXE was henceforth a “conglomerate of companies worldwide” involved in “agribusiness, wealth management, commodity trading and venture capital”.

Articles appeared in the Swiss media profiling the mysterious young man making waves among Zurich’s business elite, including pictures of Garcia wearing a poncho over his suit, arm outstretched across Bolivian salt plains he said he owned. One newspaper put him on its annual rich list. Garcia was invited on Bloomberg TV to talk about his family’s quinoa interests, then on CNBC to discuss the “white gold rush” for lithium.

Garcia had all the trappings of a successful entrepreneur: half a dozen sports cars, a small but well-appointed office in the centre of Zurich, a glamorous Russian wife. He even joined the Swiss board of the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice & Human Rights, an organisation whose US directors include Tim Cook and Martin Sheen.

Garcia flew to London and met with Sarao two or three times, according to people with knowledge of the matter. In an interview on IXE’s website, Garcia laid out his pitch to investors: “We are offering alternative investment vehicles that provide constant returns to investors. The investment in real economy makes the advantages obvious – investors are benefiting from constant returns generated from actual transactions with zero speculation and zero volatility.”

Collateral

Sarao did some due diligence about IXE, according to one adviser, but he seems to have overlooked a few red flags: the company website is littered with spelling mistakes, and several executives are members of Garcia’s family.

Garcia initially agreed to meet to discuss this story, then opted to respond to questions through a colleague at IXE. The colleague, Dominic Forcucci, wrote in an email that Garcia hadn’t done anything improper and that IXE “properly disclosed the risks of investments” to Sarao. A lawyer representing Garcia, William Wachtel, later said that Garcia described any allegations against him as “baseless and without merit”.

On August 20th, 2012, documents show, Sarao agreed to give about $17 million to Garcia and his company – by far his biggest investment and a substantial chunk of his net worth. He later invested an additional $15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Even though they’d met on only a handful of occasions, he would describe Garcia to associates as a friend.

Sarao may have been particularly trusting, but he wasn’t alone in buying into the IXE miracle. Former employees describe Garcia as charming and, on first meeting, impressive. He offered commissions to third-party agents to send prospective investors his way, ensuring a steady stream of business and creating a buzz around the firm.

In 2014, Garcia signed a deal to acquire Banca Arner, a Swiss lender in decline after allegations that it had helped former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi hide money. To coincide with the transaction, Arner’s new marketing chief, Garcia’s wife Ekaterina, issued a press release announcing it had appointed a new chairman: Michael Baer, a great-grandson of the founder of private bank Julius Baer Group and a respected figure in Swiss banking.

Heated meetings

For the time being, though, Sarao had no cause for concern. IXE sent him periodic statements showing the interest accruing in his accounts. As ever, he was happy to let it sit there and grow.

By then, Sarao’s readiness to consider almost any opportunity that offered an attractive rate of return was well-established. After another strong year in 2013, Dupont and MacKinnon introduced him to Damien O’Brien, a physically imposing Irish entrepreneur with aspirations to revolutionise the online gaming industry. The unique selling point of O’Brien’s company, Iconic Worldwide Gaming, according to a pitch document, was that it allowed gamblers to bet on movements in currencies and securities using an interface that looked like an online casino, with a roulette wheel and buttons for “higher” and “lower” instead of red and black. The patented software was called MINDGames, short for Market Influenced Number Determination Games.

The concept may not have pleased Gamblers Anonymous, but the financial projections were enticing. O’Brien predicted in the pitch document that Iconic would go from a standing start to a cash balance of £110 million by the end of its third year. There were also some reassuring names on the board: Robin Jacob, a UK appeals court judge, and David Michels, a former deputy chairman of Marks & Spencer.

In July 2014, documents show, Sarao invested £2.2 million in Iconic. Cranwood Holdings extended loans of an additional £1 million, according to one Sarao adviser. He was, several times over, the largest investor in the company.

Experienced gambler

In the months following Sarao’s investment, O’Brien went on a campaign to increase Iconic’s profile. The company sponsored World Touring Car Championship driver Rob Huff and filmed a slick advertisement with mixed martial arts superstar Conor McGregor. O’Brien and his employees were photographed ringside or wining and dining clients. In one shot taken in Las Vegas and posted on Twitter, a line of promo girls posed in matching uniforms with Iconic logos emblazoned on their hot pants. In another, O’Brien stood next to a matte-black Rolls-Royce with the license plate DAMI3N.

By the time Sarao was arrested in April 2015, he had about $50 million tied up in investments around the world, according to sources who even now aren’t positive it’s all accounted for. It was only as his lawyers tried to recoup the money that he was forced to face up to the possibility that it was gone. Sarao was released that August after his parents put up the family home as collateral against the bail of £50,000.

In November of last year, following an unsuccessful extradition fight, Sarao flew to Chicago where he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one of spoofing, which entails placing bids or offers with the intention of cancelling them before they’re executed. He was ordered to pay $38.4 million to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Justice Department, which determined that, of the money he made by day trading, only $12.8 million came from cheating the market.

Sarao is scheduled to find out the length of any custodial sentence later this year. In the meantime, he has been allowed to return to Hounslow, where he is banned from trading and, despite pushing 40, placed under the care of his father.

Trading accounts

IXE told Sarao it would return the cash in instalments in 2015 and 2016, according to a person familiar with the matter. The deadlines came and went, but no money has been produced. Garcia is rarely seen driving his sports cars around Zurich anymore, according to former associates. In October, German magazine Brand Eins skewered what it portrayed as his outlandish claims about plots of land in Bolivia and Mexico and linked Garcia to Burton Greenberg, who is serving eight years in a Florida prison for fraud.

Former IXE employees say that Garcia spent whatever he brought in to fund his own lavish lifestyle and that projections he gave in presentations to Sarao, Baer and others were plucked out of thin air. Still, Garcia’s efforts to acquire a bank continue. In August, IXE announced it was buying Private Investment Bank in the Bahamas from Swiss firm Banque Cramer & Cie. The deal is scheduled to be completed this month.

Garcia hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. Forcucci, the IXE spokesman, said the company is “working to return the money in a fair and equitable manner to its investors”.

Underestimated

Sarao’s lawyers have been unable to retrieve his investments in Cranwood despite repeated requests, owing to its convoluted offshore ownership structure, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Dupont and MacKinnon said in their email that Wind Energy Scotland has been working to get funds to Cranwood.

From their base in Berkeley Square, the pair last year started another company focused on renewable energy, Celtic Asset Management, which offers “access to a substantially higher return profile, with less capital at risk”.

Meanwhile, Sarao is back in his bedroom. The computer that got him into so much trouble is gathering dust in a Washington evidence room. Depending on how much the authorities are able to recoup, he will probably spend the rest of his life paying back the money he owes. If they really want it, they could always lift the trading ban, one associate quips: he’d make it back in no time.

– (Bloomberg)