UPDATE 1-Fairfax Financial, CEO probed over possible insider trading

Fri Aug 1, 2014 12:33pm EDT

(Adds details on Fairfax and tipping charge, updates stock price)

By Cameron French

TORONTO Aug 1 (Reuters) - Quebec's securities regulator is investigating Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd, its chief executive officer and president for possible illegal insider trading as well as tipping, or passing along sensitive information, Fairfax said.

Fairfax, a Canadian property and casualty insurer, disclosed the information late Thursday in its second-quarter financial statement.

"The investigation concerns the possibility of illegal insider trading and/or tipping (not involving any personal trading by the individuals) in connection with a Quebec transaction," Fairfax said.

Tipping refers to the practice of passing along sensitive information that could then be used for trading.

CEO Prem Watsa, a closely followed contrarian investor, addressed the issue on a conference call early Friday. He denied that he, the president, Paul Rivett, and the company had done anything improper.

"We are fully cooperating with the authorities and we are required strict confidentiality during the investigation," he said. " ... I can say there is no personal trading involved and we are confident that we did nothing wrong."

Sylvain Théberge, a spokesman for the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF), the securities regulator for Quebec, the French-speaking Canadian province, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation, citing agency policy.

Contacted by email, Rivett said he could not provide any additional information on the probe or the transaction in question.

Canadian regulators have been increasingly focusing on tipping over the last ten years, sending a message that passing along insider information damages capital markets, even if the insider doesn't directly profit from the information.

Ian Telfer, chairman of miner Goldcorp, was reprimanded last year as part of a settlement with the Ontario Securities Commission, Canada's largest securities regulator, over accusations he provided advice to someone who allegedly engaged in insider trading.

While ostensibly an insurance holding company, Fairfax also acts as an investment vehicle for Watsa, who has become an investment authority sometimes compared to Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Since taking over the company in 1985, Watsa has built a reputation with such moves as betting against the U.S. housing market, then reaping huge profits when the market collapsed in 2008.

His latest moves with Fairfax include taking positions in companies in Greece and Ireland, and becoming a top shareholder in struggling smartphone manufacturer BlackBerry Ltd.

Shares of Fairfax jumped at the open on Friday, then eased to be up C$3.71 at C$517.06 on the Toronto Stock Exchange in early afternoon trade. (Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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