Merrill Lynch, the US investment bank, is under investigation by South Korea’s financial regulator as part of a widening probe by Seoul into alleged leaking of market-sensitive information from securities analysts to clients.
The probe, which comes three months after Merrill was forced to pay a $100m settlement in the US for issuing misleading equity research, will intensify scrutiny of possible conflicts of interest within the organisation and in the investment banking industry.
Seoul’s financial supervisory commission declined to describe the exact nature of the investigation into Merrill but said the case was similar to its probe into UBS Warburg, which is accused of leaking to clients an analyst’s downgrade of Samsung Electronics a day before the report was released to the market in May.
The commission is scheduled to judge the two cases together at a meeting in Seoul in Friday. If either bank is found guilty, possible punishments include licence suspension, suspension of individual analysts or sanctions such as a warning or fine.
The watchdog said it was stepping up its six-month-old clampdown on selective disclosure of equity research and stock recommendations. “We have made this the year of investor protection by stamping down on unfair trading. This investigation was already going on but, from now, it will be wider and more intensive.”
The commission will scrutinise documents, e-mails and telephone records dating back 15 months at more than 20 domestic and foreign brokerages in Seoul.
The regulator is concerned that favoured clients have been able to profit by acting on sensitive information – such as market-moving stock upgrades or downgrades – released to them before it went to other investors.
The commission has demanded a strengthening of firewalls within financial institutions to separate research, trading and investment banking operations.
Several analysts in Seoul, particularly at foreign brokers, have accused the regulator of a witch-hunt, with raids on premises by heavy-handed investigators.
Some analysts suspect political motivation behind the crackdown in a presidential election year because foreign brokers have been blamed for the heavy selling that has dragged down the Seoul stock market since May.
Commission officials argue that a purge against unfair trading was long overdue in that disclosure rules were little respected and insider trading and stock price manipulation were rife.
Merrill Lynch agreed to pay $100m to US authorities in May to settle charges that its analysts issued favourable reports on companies that were clients or potential clients of the institution’s investment banking arm.
Last month, a US Senate subcommittee explored allegations that Merrill bankers forced the removal of a research analyst after Enron executives complained about his tepid views on their company.