The Government Went Seeking Justice at Visium. But Was it Served?

Nearly two years after being rocked by an investigation, Visium Asset Management continues to wind down its business. In June 2016, the SEC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office laid charges emanating from bond mis-marking and inflated portfolio assets as the result of evidence brought forward by whistleblower Jason Thorell.

Thorell’s concerns over mispricing surfaced in June 2013 when he raised the issue with Visium’s founder and CIO, Jacob Gottlieb while recording the conversation. Thorell subsequently reported his concerns to the SEC and in collaboration with the FBI and the SEC, Thorell spent more than two years gathering evidence in the form of hundreds of hours of recorded conversations. This evidence triggered an investigation into Visium’s holdings and resulted in the charges brought against two former employees. Despite the fact that only 2% of the company’s employees were involved, the charges resulted in the very public destruction of the $8 billion firm and left over 170 employees suddenly without jobs.

Today, the SEC settled charges against Visium Asset Management for insider trading and inflation of fund returns.

The only person remaining at the firm is Jacob Gottlieb, and he continues his work as CIO as Visium winds down. Gottlieb founded Visium in 2005 with a vision of creating a healthcare-focused hedge fund that would put company culture and employees first. Before creating Visium, Gottlieb had been an extremely successful portfolio manager at several other firms. However, he noticed that many companies had a cutthroat culture and suffered from a lack of team work and leadership support. Gottlieb wanted Visium to be different and he sought to create a company that offered employees a positive and collaborative culture, long-term career opportunities, and professional development.

Gottlieb’s long and deliberate recruitment process assessed not only skills and experience but also, and most importantly, cultural fit. New employees were supported with a formal onboarding process and regular meetings with Gottlieb himself to assess progress and set goals. New portfolio managers were also paired with research dirtectors to support them through the initial learning period, help them identify mistakes, and provide ongoing coaching on how to improve. With this strong support system, Visium portfolio managers were successful; and at its peak in 2016, the company had the aforementioned 170 employees and $8 billion in AUM.

Given the supportive environment that fostered many Visium employees to launch successful careers beginnings, it didnt’ come as a surprise when many of them were quickly picked up by competitors in 2016. Being accustomed to Gottlieb’s nurturing leadership style, the former employees quickly realized the sink-or-swim mentality that their new employers harnessed. 20 Visium employees were poached by Aptigon Capital, a subsidiary of Citadel, at the first sign of the unfurling insider trading scandal. Citadel founder and CEO, Ken Griffin lured employees away from Visium with generous pay packages and the promise of managing $1 billion portfolios. Griffin’s no stranger to poaching talent and has been quoted as saying “the talent you want to hire is the talent you want to pull from someone else.”

What Visium employees didn’t realize was that Griffin would live up to his reputation as an unforgiving boss who is quick to dismiss employees. Part of Griffin’s promise to employees was that they would receive the support of analysts to service their portfolios, but this promise went unfulfilled leaving the managers overworked and under-resourced. The Visium employees were also burdened by Aptigon’s aggressive fee structure. The higher fees Aptigon demanded meant that the managers needed to achieve higher returns than they were used to, without the assistance of the skilled analysts and collaborative culture that they were accustomed to under Visium (and Gottlieb)’s leadership. As a result, of the 20 Visium portfolio managers recruited by Aptigon, only two remain less than two years later.

The fall of Visium was caused by the actions of a small number of employees escaping detection for a short period of time- as confirmed by the SEC’s recent press release earlier today. Ultimately, many have suffered from the resulting layoffs and the lack of professional success at other firms, like Aptigon. To further illustrate the scope of the issues resulting from the dissolution of Visium, we can look at the fate of employees who have gone to competing firms. At the same time Aptigon was recruiting Visium employees, other Visium portfolio managers joined rival firm AllianceBernstein Holding LP. Although the Visium employees have been successful at AllianceBernstein, their success is lining the pockets of the foreign-owned parent company, AXA. Through Visium’s downfall, the American economy has lost talented workers and money to foreign-based entities.

The fate of the 170 innocent people who’ve suffered as a result of the events at Visium is often overlooked. The magnitude of the inflated assets are estimated to be approximately $4.5 million …a relatively small amount considering that it has forced the closure of an $8 billion company and the loss of 170 jobs. In the epilogue, there is no doubt that Gottlieb’s Visium was a firm with good intentions; a positive firm for investors and employees. The impact of Visium’s closure extends well beyond the named parties. Is this justice?

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