Citadel Barred From Trading In China After Regulator Accuses "Automated Trading" Unit Of Manipulation

Define irony: for the past 7 years, Wall Street's worst kept secret is that Citadel, the world's most levered hedge fund, has been the NY Fed's just slightly more than arms-length enforcer of market stability, by which we mean spoofer, buyer and otherwise "plunge protector" in the equity and E-mini futures markets. The secret got even less "secret" when of all the possible hedge funds blogger Ben Bernanke could have gone to, he picked the Chicago HFT powerhouse, confirming the cozy and tight relationship between the Federal Reserve and the firm which has been increasingly linked to market manipulation not only in equities but bonds and virtually all other asset classes.

Which is why Citadel must have been shocked to learn late last week that China had suspended trading at a brokerage account used by Citadel in China.

When the news first broke last Friday, we asked, somewhat rhetorically, the following question:

Today, the WSJ had more detail on the surprising snafu involving the Fed's favorite market intervention vehicle, confirming that Citadel said trading in one of its China accounts has been suspended, as Chinese regulators battle a steep slide in stock prices.

The reason: China’s securities regulator said Friday it has launched a probe into automated trading and has restricted 24 stock accounts suspected of influencing stock prices. The government didn’t name any of the companies behind the restricted stock accounts. Citadel said Sunday that one of its accounts was among them.

Of course, China's crackdown on foreign trading is not news, and had been reported about a week ago: in its endless list of scapegoatees, China had decided that blaming "evil", if faceless, foreign sellers would be just as effective to boost confidence in a rigged market as accusing "malicious" sellers. That remains to be seen, but what is surprising is that while Citadel is best known for propping the US market higher, China is suggesting that the same NY Fed Plunge Protection Team extension was implicated in the recent downward move, using "automated trading" or otherwise. Surely, China's regulator would not utter a peep if like in the US, Citadel had been used to support stock prices.

In comments on its website, the China Securities Regulatory Commission said it is investigating more than 50 instances of suspected securities violations and broken promises not to sell down share holdings as the country’s stock markets plunged in June and July. It wasn’t immediately clear why Citadel’s account had been targeted.

WSJ quotes a Citadel spokesman who notes that "We can confirm that while one account managed by Guosen Futures Ltd.—Citadel (Shanghai) Trading Ltd.—has had its trading on the Shenzhen Exchange suspended, we continue to otherwise operate normally from our offices, and we continue to comply with all local laws and regulations."

What a difference a year makes: recall that in May 2014, Citadel became only the first international hedge fund to complete yuan fundraising from Chinese wealthy individuals and companies through a local unit.

Citadel (Shanghai) Foreign Investment won regulatory approval for currency exchange on March 26, marking the first qualified domestic limited partner, or QDLP, to have successfully completed fundraising in China, according to a statement from the Shanghai government’s information office.

The irony:

China’s leaders have pledged to promote freer movement of capital in and out of the country and make the exchange rate more market-based for investment purposes. Shanghai started the QDLP program last year to allow international hedge funds to raise capital in the local currency in China for overseas investments, aiding the government’s experiment with capital account convertibility and advancing its plan to build Shanghai into a financial center.

Why irony? Because a little over a year later, we find out that China is only interested in "promoting freer movement of capital" as long as it involved its stock market going higher, and the capital flowing into China, not out of it at a record pace as we commented previously.

But still the question remains - how did Citadel attract attention to itself. The answer: "The firm has recently expanded its quantitative hedge funds there, and its securities trading business traded options this year in a trial program on the China Financial Futures Exchange."

Chinese media reported over the weekend that one of the restricted accounts was co-owned by Citadel and major Chinese brokerage firm Citic Securities. Citic Securities said Sunday it invested in the account in 2010, but it sold off its stake in November 2014 and no longer owns stock in the account, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. Citic Securities didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

And while a Citadel spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on which side of the firm’s business was affected by the suspension, it appears that Citadel's infatuation with market rigging via algos and "automated trading" is what set China off. Or rather the "selling" via automated trading.

Moments ago Bloomberg confirmed as much when it reported that an official Chinese regulator urges further algorithm trading regulation, adding that China should be prudent on developing algorithm trading, Shanghai Securities News cites an unidentified official with China Securities Regulatory Commission as saying.

Market stability were “seriously damaged” by algorithm trading combined with some abnormal trading activities, the official was cited as saying. Algorithm trading may lead to systematic risks and result would be catastrophic when algorithm trading was used to manipulate market, the official was cited as saying.

Why are none of these risks ever brought up vis-a-vis Citadel's market manipulation in the US? The answer is glaringly simple: because in the US, unlike China, Citadel always manipulates the market higher.

Which leads to an even more interesting, follow up question: if Citadel's HFT algos were indeed caught red-handed selling in China, then someone in the US must have given the local Citadel brokerage the green light to spoof Chinese stocks lower. And since by definition Citadel does not do anything market-moving without the Fed's preapproval, one wonders if China's paranoia that foreigners are eager to crush its market is not at least partially grounded in reality?