Staff members of Germany’s financial regulator, BaFin, were reportedly buying and selling Wirecard shares at a suspiciously higher rate leading up to the collapse of the FinTech firm, which is currently the focus of a massive accounting scandal.
In the first six months of 2020 to the end of June, 2.4 percent of investment activity by BaFin staff was in Wirecard stock or derivatives, according to Germany’s finance ministry in a written response to questions by lawmakers, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. This figure compares to 1.7 percent of investment activity by BaFin staff in 2019 and 1.2 percent in 2018.
Under Section 28 (monitoring transactions of BaFin staff) of Germany’s Securities Trading Act, BaFin staff are required to provide information and submit documents relating to transactions in financial instruments to monitor against insider-trading activity. Regarding the Wirecard activity, the finance ministry responded that the movement in financial transactions was not unusual, that no violations have been detected, and that BaFin supervisors disclosed and authorized the trades.
BaFin’s compliance controls, however, continue to be the focus of heavy criticism. “The trading in Wirecard by BaFin staff is surprising and raises questions, such as the size of the trades and whether officials who traded had insider knowledge,” said Florian Toncar, a lawmaker in the German parliament.
Such trading activity raises deeper questions about potential conflicts of interest and the ethics of engaging in such activity at all, not just in Germany. For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2010 imposed internal rules prohibiting SEC staff from buying or selling stocks of firms under SEC investigation and to have their transactions pre-approved. In 2017, accounting professors with the Columbia Business School and Arizona State University published a paper analyzing the “abnormal profits” SEC staff earned from such trades.
As BaFin comes under intensified scrutiny for its supervisory response leading to Wirecard’s collapse, the buying and selling trading activity of Wirecard shares by the regulator’s staff is another area worthy of close and critical attention.