By BRETT ARENDS
Twin brothers Alexander and Thomas Hunter have been scamming stock market investors since they were just 16 years old, says the Securities and Exchange Commission.
By 20, they racked up more than $3 million from investors and stock promoters from a maneuver known as the "stock-picking robot."
What can you do with people like that? Easy. Give them a job on Wall Street!
Head hunters specializing in big banks and hedge funds in Connecticut are probably calling them right now. The SEC on Friday sued the two brothers, who hail from England. According to the lawsuit, Alexander and Thomas Hunter "starting at the age of sixteen... developed an elaborate scheme to manipulate the prices of penny stocks at the expense of unwitting investors."
Sixteen. At one point their scheme involved a bank in the Bahamas.
Their game had two angles, the SEC says, and the brothers worked them both. On the one hand, they told investors they had a "stock-picking robot" no, really that had a phenomenal record for picking stocks. They sold subscription newsletters to the robot's latest tips, at their websites doublingstocks.com and daytradingrobot.com.
R2D2 loves... Anacott Steel.
On the other hand, they also secretly raised money from penny stock promoters with the promise of pumping their stocks through the same "robot" newsletters.
What kind of sucker falls for a "stock-picking robot"? More than you think. According to the SEC, about 75,000 investors -- most of them here in the U.S. -- handed over at least $1.2 million for subscriptions.
It's easy to be scornful. Are regulators really helping anybody by cracking down on this sort of thing? Someone who is foolish enough to fall for the "stock-picking robot" is probably going to lose their money one way or another.
But before we judge these investors too harsly, here's a thought. The stock-picking robot scam is not really that different from a lot of mainstream hedge funds and Wall Street banks.
"The defendants," says the SEC, told investors that "the 'robot' was a highly sophisticated computer trading program and the product of extensive research and development.'"
This is exactly what money managers tell their clients about their latest "computer algorithm" and black-box investing magic. Indeed they make similar boasts about their analysts as well. None of it seems to work very well. Maybe we're all suckers.
The Hunter brothers pocketed $1.2 million from the subscriptions. They pocketed another $1.9 million by selling their stock-promoting services through their separately branded business, equitypromoter.com. If you wanted to pump and dump a stock, you paid them. The stock-picking robot picked your stock for the next newsletter.
Working yet another angle, the brothers also allegedly traded some of their stock picks themselves, pocketing a little more money on the side.
The SEC calls this a scam. So would most people.
But didn't Wall Street used to operate like this? Doesn't it still? On the one hand, investment banks peddle their own stock-picking skills, on which the judgment of history has been unkind. If a stock-picking monkey can beat many analysts, why not a stock-picking robot?
The banks also take money from companies that want to sell their stocks to the public, often while recommending the stock to clients. Sure, they now put a little 'disclosure' at the bottom of the page, but so what?
Finally, to cap it all, they run proprietary trading desks in which they trade against the market, including their own clients, as well. Is it really that different?
We now know that during the financial bubble some Wall Street banks deliberately created doomed investment products to sell to clients so that they could bet against them. That isn't much different from buying life insurance on a client and then poisoning his food. The bankers remain at large, enjoying life in the Hamptons, mostly untroubled by the law.
Eric Bruce, attorney for the Hunter brothers, could not be reached for comment. But if Alexander and Thomas Hunter want some free advice, they should quickly do what all the big-time banksters do, and start cutting checks really big checks to people on Capitol Hill. It seems to work for everyone else.