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Why You Should Be Happy You’re Not on Wall Street’s Super Secret List of Top Clients

Citigroup Inc. Bank Branches Ahead Of 4th Quarter Earnings ReleaseCitigroup Inc. Bank Branches Ahead Of 4th Quarter Earnings Release
A Citibank branch in Washington, D.C..Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Citigroup reportedly maintains a list of clients that it treats specially. Near the top of that list is Point72, the family office run by Steven Cohen, whose former firm had to pay over $1 billion in fines related to allegations of insider trading.

You would expect Citi (C) and other Wall Street firms to treat Cohen and his new venture differently. Around the time of his settlement, there were stories that said Wall Street firms might be reluctant to do business with him, and indeed the hedge fund industry in general—where examples of insider trading were growing rapidly—because it could open them up to liability.

And they do treat Cohen’s firm differently, but not in the way you would suspect. According to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, Cohen is seen as one of Citigroup’s VIP clients, getting special access to research, the executives of the companies that its analysts cover, and top trading technology. In fact, it appears Wall Street firms are now more eager to do business with Cohen and a number of large hedge funds than they ever have in the past.

And it’s not just Citi that has a list. According to Bloomberg, Morgan Stanley (MS), HSBC, and others maintain similar lists of clients they give their most attention to. And I’m sure they do. But here’s the thing: This is nothing new. And it’s probably not that different than in other industries. Hotels and airlines have reward clubs and frequent flyer points programs geared toward pampering top clients.

For its part Citi denies Bloomberg’s account that it’s giving any special access—at least when it comes to research. “Citi Research’s focus list of best ideas is published and available to all of our clients,” says a Citi spokesperson. “We take our regulatory requirements very seriously, and per our policy, all analysts must be consistent with published research when speaking to clients.”

A few years ago, Wall Street firms had to pay billions of dollars to settle claims that at the height of the dotcom bubble, analysts were telling their top clients one thing (often sell), and putting out research to general public that said something else (often buy). The main beef with high-frequency trading and the main point of Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys is that there is a two-tiered system on Wall Street, and the guys that trade a lot—the high-frequency guys—get to profit off the rest of us. And when Greg Smith publicly declared he was quitting Goldman Sachs (GS), and later wrote a book about it pretty plainly titled Why I Quit Goldman Sachs, this was just the very beef he had with Goldman and Wall Street in general: that the system is set up so Wall Street makes money for its top clients and rips the rest of us off in the process to do it.

So it’s a little bit of a Captain Renault move for someone who manages $1.5 billion, as Jeff Sica of Circle Squared Alternative Investments does in the Bloomberg article, to say he’s shocked to learn preferential treatment is going in the back rooms of Wall Street.

 

That doesn’t make it right. And there are times when Wall Street definitely steps over the limit. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Goldman paid a $550 million fine for creating a mortgage derivative that John Paulson could use to bet against the housing market, while at the same time pitching the investment as a good buy to others. That’s clearly bad behavior.

But that’s not what’s being alleged here. Bloomberg claims Citi is luring big hedge funds in by giving them special access to their research and trading tools. But what are they getting? A few months ago MarketWatch took a look at the top recommended stocks by Wall Street analysts and found that they generally did pretty poorly.

Citi does have a brokerage service that executes trades for clients using high frequency trading technology. But it’s not clear that large hedge funds like Citadel, which is also reportedly on Citi’s list, would want that either—it’s already one of the best high-frequency traders on it own.

So yeah, the largest investors who spend the most money do get the best treatment from Wall Street’s top banks. But that shouldn’t matter to the average investor. The way to get the best treatment on Wall Street is to put all of your money, or most of it, in an S&P 500 index fund. It comes at low cost, and at least for the past five of the past six years, has outperformed the majority of Wall Street’s favorite mutual funds and hedge funds. So much for special treatment.