Updated Saturday, September 20, 2014 as of 6:04 AM ET

Wall Street Bond Trading, Allocation Draws Scrutiny From FINRA

(Bloomberg) -- FINRA is examining whether Wall Street firms overcharge investors on some bond trades and whether they unfairly allocate new corporate debt issues to reward certain clients.

Richard Ketchum, the chairman and chief executive officer of Wall Street’s self-regulator, said FINRA is looking at trading data to see if brokers sometimes earn unusually large profits on bond trades, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The investigation could lead to enforcement action or an instruction to reduce the spread between buying and selling prices, the report said. Nancy Condon, a spokeswoman for FINRA, confirmed the report in an e-mail.

In matched trades, where banks and other dealers join a buyer to a seller, profits of more than 1.5 percent to 2 percent would be “questionable,” Ketchum said, according to the newspaper’s account of the interview.

FINRA is also working with the SEC to examine whether underwriters give the largest portions of new debt issues to their biggest customers, according to the report. That could allow the buyers to make a quick profit by selling them at a higher price to investors shut out of the initial deal.

The SEC is looking at the practice of dealers showing clients different prices for the same securities on electronic bond-trading platforms, a person with direct knowledge of the inquiry told Bloomberg last month. Regulators are examining whether being able to turn quotes on and off allows market manipulation, and whether smaller buyers are given worse prices, the person said.

REGULATORY SCRUTINY

The SEC’s probe underscores growing concern that the infrastructure of the U.S. bond market hasn’t kept pace with a 23 percent expansion in the past six years, with much of the trading still conducted by telephone and e-mails.

Wall Street banks have already come under regulatory scrutiny for their involvement in rigging benchmark interest rates and currencies. Financial institutions have paid about $6 billion so far to resolve criminal and civil claims in the U.S. and Europe that they manipulated rates.

At least two dozen bank employees have been fired, suspended or put on leave by banks from Citigroup Inc. to Barclays Plc amid probes into global currency markets. No firms or traders have been accused of wrongdoing.

Separately, the Federal Reserve has been asking big fund managers about market inefficiencies, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited unidentified people familiar with the matter. One area of investigation is the difficulty some investors had in buying and selling bonds last May after the central bank suggested it might scale back its own bond purchases, according to the report.

A Federal Reserve spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News after office hours.

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