Risk Management

Merrill Lynch Fined $12M Over Flash Crashes

The SEC says Merrill's erroneous order controls were ineffective, causing the stock prices of 13 companies to fall sharply.
Matthew HellerSeptember 27, 2016

Merrill Lynch has agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle charges that it failed to prevent the transmission of erroneous trades, causing mini-flash crashes in the stocks of 13 companies including Google, Diageo, and Anadarko Petroleum.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Merrill’s internal controls were not “reasonably designed to prevent the entry of erroneous orders” in part because it set the triggering thresholds so high they were ineffective.

In one case, the brokerage unit of Bank of America applied a limit of 5 million shares per order for a stock that only traded around 79,000 shares per day.

As a result of the ineffective controls, the SEC said in an administrative order, Merrill caused market disruptions on at least 15 occasions from late 2012 to mid-2014, including two instances in which the stock prices of Anadarko and Qualys Inc. fell about 99% within two seconds of the trades.

Merrill will pay a $12.5 million civil penalty, a record for violations of the Market Access Rule. Previous cases include a $4 million penalty paid by Morgan Stanley in 2014 and a $7 million penalty paid by Goldman Sachs in 2015.

“Mini-flash crashes, such as those caused by Merrill Lynch, can undermine investor confidence in the markets,” Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, said in a news release. “It is essential that broker-dealers with market access have reasonable controls to prevent erroneous orders that disrupt trading.”

The Market Access Rule requires broker-dealers to establish risk management controls that are reasonably designed to prevent the entry of erroneous orders and the entry of orders that would exceed appropriate credit or capital thresholds.

Merrill’s controls included single order quantity limits and single order notional value limits but according to the SEC, “Many of the thresholds selected by the senior managers of the business units were set at such high levels that they rendered the controls ineffective.”

Some trading strategies had limits set as high as 25 million shares, which Merrill reduced to 50,000 after the SEC’s investigation began.

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