British oil traders who made $700m on price crash will face US lawsuit

Judge allows class action suit against 'Essex Boys' for deals on the only day oil prices ever dropped below zero

Action on the Wall Street floor. AP

On April 20, 2020, the only day oil prices have ever dropped below zero, a British trader sent a message to his colleagues: “We pushed each other so hard for years for this one moment … and we [expletive] blitzed it, boys.”

Moments earlier, one of his colleague wrote on their WhatsApp message group: “Please don’t tell anyone what happened today lads.”

Those written exchanges, among traders nicknamed the “Essex Boys” who made $700 million when oil prices collapsed, were quoted by a US judge who gave approval to a class-action lawsuit filed against them in August 2020.

His ruling was unsealed on Tuesday in Chicago.

The suit by Mish International Monetary alleges 12 men associated with Vega Capital London manipulated markets and broke antitrust laws by colluding to push the market down.

Mish, a buyer that day, says it lost money. The defendants, who range in age from their early twenties to their late fifties, say they are independent traders who were following “blaring” market signals.

US District Judge Gary Feinerman rejected a motion by the traders to dismiss the case, saying it could proceed against eight of the 12.

“The content of their communications, along with the high degree of correlative trading among most of them, give rise to a highly plausible inference of an agreement among them,” Mr Feinerman wrote in his order, which included excerpts of the traders' messages.

He dismissed the case against four of the traders and against Vega Capital, but he said Mish could amend its complaint against them by April 28.

An investigation by Bloomberg News in 2020 showed the traders at Vega Capital, a small company on the outskirts of London, lived mostly in the same neighbourhood in Essex.

They were brought together by an experienced trader named Paul Commins, who was known as “Cuddles.”

Trading data shows that several of their transactions on April 20, 2020, were “highly correlated,” the suit claims, with between 96.2 and 99.7 per cent moving “in the same direction at the very same time.”

When the market closed, the 12 men were responsible for 29.2 per cent of the total volume in WTI crude oil futures, a vast global market, the suit claims.

Their trading coincided with a collapse in the price of WTI futures, from $56 a barrel at the start of the day to minus $37 when the market closed.

Messages on their WhatsApp group, named "Legends XXX," show the traders were pushing to get prices lower and exchanging information about their positions, the court filing said.

“Just keep selling it every five points,” one trader said.

“You’ve just got to keep selling,” said another.

“Everyone is going to be short and have ammo,” another said.

“I wanna see negative WTI prices,” yet another said.

The traders say they were just taking advantage of the opportunities presented by a fast-moving market.

“Unprecedented offers presented speculators with an almost guaranteed profit opportunity,” one filing said.

“Astute traders could sell at negative prices and buy back at potentially even lower negative prices, earning a profit on the spread.”

The judge’s decision opens the door to discovery, meaning the plaintiffs will have access to more of the group’s trading records and communications.

They will also have a chance to depose the men under oath.

Updated: April 14, 2022, 1:08 AM
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