By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators have obtained a court order freezing the assets of a Thailand-based trader, saying he reaped $3.2 million in illegal profits after getting a tip ahead of the announcement that a Chinese meat company was buying Smithfield Foods Inc.
The Securities and Exchange Commission said on Thursday that Badin Rungruangnavarat, 30, may have received the tip from a Facebook friend who once worked for Rungruangnavarat's current employer.
Shuanghui International Holdings, China's largest meat processor, said last week it was buying U.S. pork producer Smithfield for $4.7 billion.
The agency said the friend is an associate director at a Thai investment bank that was advising a Shuanghui rival, Charoen Pokphand Foods Plc, which was also exploring a bid for Smithfield.
The SEC said Rungruangnavarat reaped $3.2 million in profits by trading Smithfield "out of the money" call options and single-stock futures in an account at Interactive Brokers LLC shortly before the announcement.
"Rungruangnavarat essentially cornered the market in Smithfield call options and futures contracts," the SEC said in the complaint.
A spokeswoman for Smithfield declined to comment on the SEC's case.
A spokeswoman at Interactive Brokers declined to comment, saying it is company policy to not discuss individual customer matters.
The SEC's complaint was filed under seal in U.S. district court in Illinois on Wednesday. The agency said Rungruangnavarat, who works for a plastics company in Bangkok, has no known defense counsel at this time.
The SEC's enforcement action marks the latest high-profile emergency asset freeze of overseas traders accused of trading ahead of major U.S. mergers or acquisitions.
Earlier this year, the SEC filed a similar complaint targeting overseas traders who were accused of trading options ahead of Warren Buffett's announcement that he planned to buy H.J. Heinz Co.
In both the Heinz case and in the Smithfield deal, bullish bets in U.S. options ahead of the takeover announcements raised red flags that investors may have been tipped off.
The SEC moved quickly in the Heinz and Smithfield cases, getting emergency orders to keep traders from cashing in by freezing their accounts.
The incidence of very profitable options trading ahead of major takeovers is not uncommon. A study for Reuters by options research firm Schaeffer's Investment Research looked at a sampling of announcements over 14 months and found 41 examples where new call options positions had risen by at least 50 percent in the five days before the news broke.
What makes this case a little more unusual, though, is the fact that the trader also used single-stock futures, products that are not frequently used by traders and have very little trading volume.
"Single stock futures are thinly traded and it's interesting that the trader even knew about them," said Henry Schwartz, president of option analytics firm Trade Alert.
"It does seem kind of stupid to trade in such an illiquid market. Unusual trading in single stock futures would be even more obvious than it is in options because there are fewer contracts available."
In a statement, the head of the SEC's Chicago office said the agency will go after anyone who violates the laws against insider trading.
"We will act quickly and decisively to uncover and take action against insider trading no matter where the trader resides," said Merri Jo Gillette.
The SEC said that Rungruangnavarat's trades took place on both the Chicago Board Options Exchange and OneChicago, an exchange that lists single-stock futures.
A spokeswoman for CBOE declined to comment on this specific case, but said the exchange takes its oversight responsibilities seriously. A spokeswoman for OneChicago declined to comment.
The deal between Shuanghui and Smithfield, announced on May 29, would mark the largest-ever acquisition of a U.S. company by a Chinese buyer.
It must be scrutinized by several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Treasury's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews deals for national security concerns.
(Additional reporting by Doris Frankel in Chicago; Editing by John Wallace, Jeffrey Benkoe and Carol Bishopric)