Friday, March 31, 2006

Suspicious profits sit uncollected after September 11th

SF Chronicle

Investors have yet to collect more than $2.5 million in profits they made trading options in the stock of United Airlines before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a source familiar with the trades and market data.

The uncollected money raises suspicions that the investors -- whose identities and nationalities have not been made public -- had advance knowledge of the strikes.

"Usually, if someone has a windfall like that, you take the money and run," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Whoever did this thought the exchange would not be closed for four days.

"This smells real bad."

The source and others in the financial industry speculate that the purchaser or purchasers -- having initially assumed the money could be picked up without detection -- now fear exposure, or that the account has been frozen.

The markets were closed for four days after the attack, giving investigators time to notice the anomalous trades.

Securities regulators and law-enforcement agents throughout the United States and Europe are investigating unusual patterns in short sales and the purchase of "put" options, both of which are financial-market bets that the price of a given stock will fall. Authorities here and abroad have not publicly disclosed any conclusions they have reached and refuse to discuss the case.

There was an unusually large jump in purchases of put options on the stocks of UAL Corp. and AMR Corp. in the three business days before the attack on major options exchanges in the United States. On one day, UAL put option purchases were 25 times greater than the year-to-date average. In the month before the attacks, short sales jumped by 40 percent for UAL and 20 percent for American.

A put option gives the buyer a right to sell the underlying security at a certain price on a certain date; the purchaser profits when the share price drops lower than the agreed sale price. In a short sale, an investor borrows stock from a broker and sells it, hoping to buy it back at a lower price.

October series options for UAL Corp. were purchased in highly unusual volumes three trading days before the terrorist attacks for a total outlay of $2,070; investors bought the option contracts, each representing 100 shares, for 90 cents each. Those options are now selling at more than $12 each. There are still 2,313 so-called "put" options outstanding, according to the Options Clearinghouse Corp.

No comments: