VIEW FROM NEW YORK: Fidelity faces SEC inquiry after shares sell- off

World's largest mutual fund accused of deliberately manipulating the market

Grow to be the master of your patch and before too long the rabble outside - either your competitors or, more likely, the federal government - will start to look for ways to knock you down. In this country, at least, it is as predictable as egg-nog parties at Christmas and the hangovers that come afterwards.

Ask Bill Gates, whose Microsoft Corporation has, in the last 18 months, been the target of a slew of unfair competition investigations by the Justice Department. The presumption is that big must mean bad. Mr Gates is undeterred, of course, announcing only days ago his latest foray: a pair of joint ventures with NBC.

Now it is the turn of Fidelity Investment, the Boston-based mutual fund, or unit trust, company that is the biggest in the world. Fidelity manages an astonishing $350bn in assets and by some estimates is responsible for between 5 and 7 per cent of all trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Suddenly, though, it has become the target of multiple murmurings of unethical practices. Specifically, one of its best- known managers is facing claims that he has offered up-beat public appraisals of certain stocks while at the same time off-loading them from Fidelity's portfolios. According to press reports, the allegations have been loud and persuasive enough to provoke a preliminary investigation by the Securities Exchange Commission.

The focus of the attention is Jeffrey Vinik, the manager of Fidelity's biggest fund, the Magellan, and comments that he made in early November about Micron Technology. Theoretically, the SEC, which has not publicly confirmed its investigation, could charge Mr Vinik with seeking to use Magellan's clout to manipulate the market to his fund's advantage. That would be a serious violation of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act and lead to potentially severe disciplinary action against him and Fidelity.

The case against him arises in part from comments he made to US News & World Report magazine in which he argued that Micron's valuations were reasonable and the fundamentals still outstanding. This was on 6 November (although the quote was published on 11 December) at a time when Mr Vinik's fund was running away fast from Micron. According to SEC filings, Magellan had sold 1.6 million shares of Micron in October. While Magellan still had 10.5 million Micron shares on 31 October, by the end of November its holding had dropped back to 1.2 million.

The evidence was compelling enough to persuade a pair of Boston investors who had bought Micron stock to sue Mr Vinik, alleging deliberate manipulation of the market.

"When a company like Fidelity, that has huge market power, chooses to speak about individual stocks that it has invested in, it has an obligation to speak the truth," said their lawyer, Glen de Valario. "Had my clients known Mr Vinik was selling, they would not have purchased the stock".

Fidelity is going all out to defend Mr Vinik. "Jeff Vinik's interviews reflect his views and opinions at the time of the interview. He is an active manager and his views on any stock can change any time," a spokesperson asserted. "The suggestion that Jeff was manipulating the market was simply not true."

Determining the guilt or otherwise of Mr Vinik is certain to be difficult. It is precisely because of the enormous sway of his fund that Mr Vinik was always going to be in a virtually impossible position when the moment came to start backing out of hi-tech stocks - this year's hot holdings - including out of Micron. Even a "no-comment" would have triggered an instant sell-off as investors detected a waning of enthusiasm for the company.

Still, Mr Vinik's prospects will not be helped by a report in Friday's Wall Street Journal that Micron is not the only stock on which his statements may not have tallied with his deeds. The paper recalled an interview Mr Vinik gave to Barron's magazine in September 1994 in which Mr Vinik admitted that he had sold half of Magellan's Goodyear holdings, but added that he intended holding on to the rest. Filings subsequently showed that Magellan had sold off all its Goodyear position by the end of that month.

Barry Barbash, director of the SEC's investment management division, said: "The SEC's interest or concern would certainly be intensified to the extent there were more instances of questionable transactions."

As Fidelity ponders the controversy, two possible morals may occur to it. One, it should never have become so big and powerful and thus opened itself to violent assault, or two - which is probably much more appealing - never allow your managers to give interviews to the press.

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