Hollywood loves a swindler.
Leonardo DiCaprio has just proved as much. His role as a dwarf-tossing, boiler-room trader in "The Wolf of Wall Street" does plenty to reinforce the modern day image of bankers as the real gangsters of New York.
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"My name is Jordan Belfort," says DiCaprio in the opening line of the film. "The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week."
After "Black Monday" in 1987, Belfort switches from selling companies like AT&T to flogging penny stocks to the richest one percent of investors in a "pump and dump" scheme that left clients holding more than $100 million losses. Belfort makes his fortune trading on the stock market but becomes addicted to sex and drugs.
The Martin Scorsese movie has just won DiCaprio a Golden Globe. But outside the world of celluloid, there's a key difference between America's take on bad boy traders and that of the Brits. The Yanks generally nail their wolves.
In Britain, as countless cases show, financial crime regulators frequently turn out to have all the prosecuting skills of sheep.
Too many investigations either take too long or come to nothing — taking the wind out of clear improvements made by regulators.
Even forgetting the Serious Fraud Office's botched dawn raid on property entrepreneurs Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz, or the Office of Fair Trading's comic attempt to bring a price-fixing case against four British Airways executives, it's hard not to want more progress from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulatory body and its new tough-talking regime.
After a drawn-out four-year probe focusing on alleged connections to an insider trading ring, the FCA is only now gearing up to charge Moore Capital hedge fund manager Julian Rifat, one of 10 men arrested in the high profile dawn raids known as "Operation Tabernula", which involved 143 police officers.
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Only one of the men arrested has had his case resolved. Seven are still awaiting trial, expected to kick off this September, and one person's fate still remains in limbo.
In addition, there is still no verdict in the Ian Hannam market abuse case — the JP Morgan star banker who was forced to step down as one of Europe's most high profile financiers after a 5-year investigation by the regulator. Hannam denies any wrongdoing.
Furthermore, last year, three men were arrested in February after a year-long investigation which was eventually dropped. But not before their hedge fund was forced to close.
There is some progress. In London, abnormal trading ahead of deals has dropped to its lowest level in a decade. And, as a result of the FCA's proactive work contacting firms, "suspicious transaction reports" rose to over 1,100 last year, from 509 cases in 2010. Plus, the regulator has convicted 23 insider dealers since 2009, and 36 market abuse cases have resulted in bans or fines, including last year's one against David Einhorn and Greenlight Capital.
However, U.S. prosecutors have won a guilty plea or conviction in every case they've brought so far — nearly 80 of them.
For a better Hollywood ending, the FCA needs have a better hit rate in the cases it does take on. Too often its scatter gun approach looks like a case of a regulator crying wolf.
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