Wild Trading in Metals Puts Fund Manager in Cross Hairs By SUSAN PULLIAM Christopher Pia was the quintessential hedge-fund success story: a hard-charger from a working-class New York City neighborhood whose trading prowess earned him a top job at fund giant Moore Capital Management. He bought a sprawling house in Armonk, N.Y., and tooled around town in an orange Lamborghini. But his 18-year relationship with Moore Capital and its founder, hedge-fund tycoon Louis Bacon, came to an abrupt end in late 2008. Mr. Bacon forced out his onetime head trader, friend and protÃ©gÃ©, and Mr. Pia launched his own fund. The story behind the rupture is only now surfacing, and it involves allegations of a kind of improper trading that regulators worry is becoming more widespread. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is investigating whether Mr. Pia's trading at Moore involved market manipulation, according to a person close to the situation. Specifically, CFTC investigators are looking into whether Mr. Pia improperly tried to push up prices of platinum and palladium, possibly to boost Moore's returns and his own compensation, this person says. In late April, the CFTC filed a civil complaint against Moore claiming that an unnamed former portfolio manager attempted to manipulate prices in the futures markets. People familiar with the case say the former manager is Mr. Pia. Moore paid a $25 million fine to settle the matter, without admitting or denying wrongdoing, but the investigation of Mr. Pia is continuing. A spokesman for Mr. Pia declined to comment. The hedge-fund industry has been rocked over the past year by allegations that fund managers reaped illegal profits by trading stocks based on inside information. The investigation of Mr. Pia and the case against Moore suggest that commodities trading also can be an insiders gameâa market where big investors may be able to throw their weight around to move prices to their advantage. Prices in the futures markets for commodities help determine how much consumers pay for everything from a carton of orange juice to a gallon of gas. Cases involving investors trying to artificially move commodities prices are nothing new. But abusive trading practices have become more prevalent, says Bart Chilton, a CFTC commissioner, because regulators, until recently, have lacked the tools needed to aggressively go after and punish wrongdoers. The recently enacted financial-reform bill, Mr. Chilton says, will give the CFTC more enforcement tools to pursue more cases involving disruptive trading practices in the commodities markets, and to levy stiffer penalties. Over the long term, supply and demand dictates prices in the commodities markets. What concerns regulators, for the most part, are efforts to move prices over the short term. The growing number of large investors speculating in commodities has created "aberrations" that can present the "opportunity for foul play," says Mr. Chilton. One way investors bet on commodities is through the futures market, where they enter into contracts to buy or sell raw materials at a set price on a specified date. In its complaint against Moore, the CFTC said the unnamed portfolio manager engaged in a practice known on Wall Street as "banging the close." That involves trying to move the price of futures contracts by inundating the market with orders just before trading ends. Moore's aim, the CFTC said, was to push up prices of platinum and palladium futures contracts. The CFTC didn't say why the unnamed trader engaged in the alleged behavior, or whether Moore or the trader made money on it. If Mr. Pia was banging the close, it could have lifted the value of his existing portfolio of futures trades, which in turn might boost his compensation, according to people close to the situation. Moore also settled charges that it failed to properly supervise its trading operations. In a statement, Moore said no one else has "been accused of any wrongdoing" in the matter. Mr. Bacon declined to comment. The regulatory action was a black eye for Mr. Bacon, who has a long track record of heady returns and has appeared on published lists of the highest-paid people on Wall Street. It came on the heels of another unwelcome incident. In March, a Moore trader in London was arrested by British authorities for alleged insider trading. Moore said it doesn't believe any funds managed by Moore are involved in that matter. Mr. Pia, 44 years old, grew up in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens and met Mr. Bacon when both were working at Shearson Lehman Brothers. When Mr. Bacon, 54, launched Moore Capital in 1990, he asked Mr. Pia to join. Moore is a "macro" hedge fund, making broad bets on the economy and the markets by trading in commodities, currencies and various securities. The fund company grew rapidly and now manages roughly $15 billion. Mr. Pia eventually oversaw its trading operations. Mr. Pia liked to tell colleagues about his modest upbringing, and that he is a devout Catholic. He complained about hedge-fund managers he considered elitist. On the trading floor, he often twirled a string of rosary beads. Callers to his cellphone heard the Batman theme song. Moore's success turned Mr. Bacon into a billionaire. From 1990 through last year, Moore's flagship fund notched an average annual return of 20.5%, after fees. Mr. Bacon bought a house in London with a squash court, another in the Hamptons with a polo field and a golf-driving range. He had homes in Manhattan, Paris and the Bahamas. He and Mr. Pia would go duck hunting together on a 145-acre island Mr. Bacon bought off the coast of Long Island. At Moore, Mr. Pia had enormous amounts of capital at his disposal, and he was known to deploy it in complex trading maneuvers. In 2008, for example, Mr. Pia entered into a trade under which Moore would get a $25 million payout if the New Zealand dollar rose to a certain level. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was on the hook to make the payout. If that level wasn't hit, Moore stood to lose $1 million. As the trade's expiration date approached, the New Zealand dollar was trading about 25 cents below the price at which the contract would pay out. Mr. Pia got clearance from top Moore officials to spend billions buying New Zealand dollars, hoping the currency would hit the set price, according to the person with knowledge of the trade. Fifteen minutes before the contract expired, Mr. Pia began buying billions of New Zealand dollars, lifting the currency to the price at which Moore was able to collect the $25 million, the person says. Gary Cohn, Goldman's president, later congratulated Mr. Pia on the trade, the person says. A spokesman for Moore declined to comment on the matter. cont.