Liberalism, Social Justice and the Cryptorevolution

Liberalism, Social Justice and the Cryptorevolution

Attention DeepCapture fans in the New York and New Jersey area: our own Patrick Byrne will be speaking at Rutgers University on Monday, February 22, 2016 at Hageman Hall, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, at 4:30pm (EST). The subject will be the philosophical underpinnings of the cryptocurrency movement and how it relates to liberalism and social justice.

The flaws in the current Wall Street settlement system, and how they can be remedied by blockchain technology, will be included in the discourse. I’ve been present for pieces of what’s going to be presented, and it’s always a fascinating time. Hearing all the pieces brought together is something not to be missed.

Liberalism, Social Justice and the Cryptorevolution, Patrick Byrne's talk at Rutgers University

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Barry Minkow’s short trip from ex-felon to current-felon

Barry Minkow’s short trip from ex-felon to current-felon

It’s been a tough few weeks for Barry Minkow, as Patrick Byrne has done a fine job chronicling recently. Minkow’s sudden return from ex-felon to current-felon has come as a surprise to some, but not to the Deep Capture team; for we have, over nearly four years, sought to raise awareness of Minkow’s place in a much broader, criminal stock manipulation ecosystem.

Those who need to get caught up will appreciate the following review, with some additional information thrown in for color.

Following his release from prison for stock manipulation, Minkow created the Fraud Discovery Institute (FDI), which, according to a disclaimer on the FDI website, was originally funded by fees collected in return for “various training sessions as well as public speaking engagements.”

FDI’s ostensibly altruistic motivation persisted until spring of 2007. At that time, verbiage was added to the company disclaimer revealing two additional sources of revenue: “short positions” and “third party payers.” This was Minkow’s subtle disclosure of the fact that he would subsequently be paying the bills by means of the profits derived from trading (in this case, short-selling) ahead of FDI’s attacks on public companies, and that these attacks would be financed by third parties who felt Minkow’s motives, one must presume, were aligned with their own.

This evolution in FDI’s incentive structure – from karmic to economic – was a fateful one for Minkow, as it marks the beginning of his march down a path that by all appearances leads to prison. Given its significance, it will be the primary emphasis of the remainder of this piece.

We now know that the change to FDI’s disclaimer was timed in accordance with its publication of an attack on USANA (NASDAQ:USNA), a publicly traded company in whose stock Minkow had previously purchased hundreds of put options, anticipating they would increase in value as the company’s stock fell (that is, buying a put against a company’s stock is just one way to bet that its price is going to fall).

How Minkow came to target USANA is both instructive and well-documented, thanks to the testimony Minkow gave when deposed in the defamation suit USANA brought in response to the attack (though it’s since been equally well-documented that being under oath is by no means a guarantee Minkow will tell the truth).

According to Minkow, one summer day in 2006, entirely without warning, fellow convicted stock manipulator Sam Antar called to announce that he would be sending Minkow $100,000 – no strings attached. Together with $150,000 sent in the months to follow, Antar handed Minkow $250,000 of the nearly $300,000 used to finance the USANA attack.

This payment is interesting for myriad reasons, two of which follow:

First, Minkow currently finds himself in a familiar role as defendant in a defamation suit borne of one of FDI’s more recent attacks – this time against public company Lennar. A source familiar with the lawsuit tells me that in his deposition in the case, Sam Antar testified that the $250,000 he gave Minkow bought Antar access to Minkow’s operation, and that Antar paid it anticipating that he would eventually create a comparable business based on the FDI model. Strikingly, the source also reveals that Antar went out of his way, under oath, to express hatred toward his then-wife Robin Antar, whose personal bankroll was without doubt the actual source of the funds, assuming they did in fact originate anywhere near Sam.

Second, arguing against the possibility that the money was indeed Antar’s is the fact that public records reveal that within months of Antar’s $250,000 gifts, the State of New York issued a warrant for unpaid taxes against him in the amount of $473.15. That tax debt remains unpaid to this day.

In his subsequent divorce from Robin, Sam was unable to cover the cost of his own attorney, and was forced to beg the former Mrs. Antar to pay for both hers and his. Additionally, Antar’s remaining $60,000 SEC-ordered fine (brought about by his involvement in the Crazy Eddie stock scam) appears to remain unpaid. Finally, a 2008 civil judgment ordering Antar to repay a $200,000 debt to real estate financier Morris Cohen has been actively ignored by Antar.

Point being: the $250,000 Antar gave Minkow both financed the USANA attack and bought Antar access to FDI’s operations. What’s less clear is the origin of the money, given the amount of evidence indicating Antar himself has a net worth well below zero.

According to Minkow, he and Antar first agreed to collaborate on the USANA attack in October of 2006.

Interestingly, that’s the same month in which Gary Weiss, an outspoken defender of illegal, manipulative short selling, went out of his way to introduce Antar to the readers of his blog. The occasion was a comment Antar made on a column penned by Herb Greenberg, yet another defender of illegal short selling and the man who would, just days before FDI’s USANA attack, announce to the world that Minkow and Antar had recently joined him for lunch.

From that day on, the blogs operated by Weiss and Antar operated in close synch with one another and both made effusive praise of Minkow a consistent element in their writing.

FDI’s USANA attack was published in February of 2007 but remained largely unnoticed until March 15, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about it.

One month later, a clear anti-USANA PR offensive was launched by FDI.

Within the space of three days, Gary Weiss again made a special effort to introduce his readers to blogging accountant Tracy Coenen, a recent addition to the FDI team. Together, Antar, Weiss and Coenen carefully coordinated their blog subject matter and cross linking, in order to achieve maximum visibility on search engines, all the while heaping thick praise on Minkow’s efforts.

Two more events coincided with this mid-April PR blitz: class action securities attorney Howard Sirota (operating anonymously) became a frequent and rabidly anti-USANA participant in online discussions of the company’s stock. Sirota, as it turns out, is a close friend of Sam Antar’s and has represented the late Anthony Bruan, who is significant in that he contributed $10,000 toward the financing of FDI’s USANA attack.

Clearly, Antar brought both Sirota and Bruan into the picture — Sirota likely with an eye toward leading a shareholder class action suit against USANA, and Bruan hoping to make a quick few bucks shorting the stock.

When his true identity was publicly revealed by me in June of 2007, Sirota defended his several months’ worth of anonymous attacks on USANA and at the same time revealed that he had also bought put options in the stock, anticipating it would fall in response to Minkow’s actions.

In his deposition in the case, Minkow testified that Sam Antar had similarly either sold shares of USANA short or had invested in speculative put options.
Perhaps most significantly, the middle of April 2007 saw a dramatic and sustained surge in delivery failures of USANA shares, which is generally a result of a concerted effort to illegally depress the price of the stock.

In other words, FDI’s mid-April anti-USANA PR blitz appears to have been timed to coincide with a manipulative trading scheme intended to apply significant, artificial downward pressure on USANA’s share price.

Furthermore, this effort involved Sam Antar, Tracy Coenen, Gary Weiss, Howard Sirota, and of course, Barry Minkow.

In the years that have followed, Weiss, Coenen, Antar and Minkow have grown quite close and effusive in their affection for one another. Coenen, who knows nothing about corporate finance, has even joined Weiss in defending illegal, manipulative short selling and attacking companies victimized by the practice.

Antar, for his part, revealed under oath that he was paid $30,000 by Minkow for his support of FDI’s attack on Lennar (though he promises to pay it all back).

Tracy Coenen testified that she was paid $50,000 by FDI for her work on the same project. Gary Weiss has yet to be asked what he got for his trouble, but in light of the phrase he used in the inaugural post on his own blog – “only a fool writes for free” – we can surmise there was something in it for him, too.

To top it all off, Tracy Coenen got Minkow, Antar and Weiss each to pen an enthusiastically positive review of a book related to accounting fraud she published during this period (and while Minkow’s review remains indelibly printed inside the book, Tracy’s had the good sense to remove that one from her website).

We can also surmise that Minkow was beyond pleased with Weiss’s support for FDI’s efforts, given the fact that Minkow tends to cite a post from Weiss’s blog, verbatim and in toto, when explaining away the lawsuit USANA brought in response to FDI’s attack. (As an aside, that particular post by Weiss ends as follows: “Congratulations, Barry, and keep up the good work.”)

Notably, Minkow has been subjected to substantial criticism by the judge overseeing the Lennar suit – in which Minkow is the primary defendant – for, among other things, the destruction of evidence. This includes email communication from Minkow to Antar and Coenen. Most significantly, these same emails have also been deleted by Antar and Coenen – strongly suggesting a conspiracy by these three not only to defraud, but to cover-up.

Thus far, only Minkow has been held to account for these dark deeds, but the gears of justice grind fine yet slow, and the eventual inclusion of — at the very least — Antar and Coenen seems inevitable.

Posted in AntiSocialMedia with Judd Bagley, Featured Stories, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (39)

A moment of déjà vu

Libyan Iman al-Obeidi barged into a hotel housing foreign journalists in Tripoli today, seeking to publicly draw attention to the government troops who had recently detained and sexually assaulted her. While no independent proof of al-Obeidi’s claims were available, her body exhibited physical injuries consistent with her story.

Libyan government minders tasked with controlling reality as presented to foreign press corps quickly and brutally silenced al-Obeidi, whisking her away in a waiting automobile. You can read more about this heartbreaking story here.

Following al-Obeidi’s abduction, journalists inquired as to her fate. A government spokesman dismissed the incident, saying al-Obeidi was “drunk and possibly mentally challenged.”

In the absence of a legitimate defense, hacks always attack the whistleblower’s mental state.

This incident took be back to August, 2005. Patrick Byrne had just given a presentation that figuratively barged into the middle of Wall Street’s snoozing press corps, seeking to publicly draw attention to a financial assault being experienced by many small public companies at the time.

One of the few employees of a media outlet (I hesitate to call him a “journalist”) who wrote about the presentation was Roddy Boyd, a well-known shill for the very people Byrne had just called out. Boyd crafted one mocking version of his story, but found it failed to meet his handlers’ expectations. So, at their request, he edited his piece to add a line questioning whether Byrne was drunk or suffering mental illness when he gave the presentation.

In the absence of a legitimate defense, hacks always attack the whistleblower’s mental state.

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Moral Hazard at the SEC

Moral Hazard at the SEC

Moments after first mention of the word “bailout” came the first of many references to the inevitable outcome: moral hazard, which is the term used to describe the direct correlation between the irresponsibility of one’s behavior and the degree to which one is insulated from responsibility for said behavior.

Moral hazard is observed in any decision-making entity – including individuals, corporations and even government regulatory agencies – and in extreme cases helps to explain many of their otherwise inexplicable actions. Indeed, when attempting to understand much of what happens at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), I believe moral hazard is nearly as important a factor as the much more frequently-discussed matter of regulatory capture.

The following case illustrates this quite aptly.

In his most recent report to Congress, David Kotz, Inspector General of the SEC, summarized an internal report prepared by his office in which two unnamed enforcement attorneys were found to have provided information on non-public SEC investigations to an unnamed short-seller and an FBI agent. It’s apparent that the short-seller and FBI agent are the infamous Anthony Elgindy and Jeffrey Royer, respectively. The identities of the two SEC investigators who enabled them, on the other hand, are not clear.

Hoping to learn more, longtime SEC critic Dave Patch requested and received the IG’s full report on the matter (get your copy here!). Months later, the report arrived, though redacted by SEC censors (not affiliated with the IG’s office) to the point of near incomprehensibility. None the less, thanks to a single missed redaction and extensive cross-referencing of facts mentioned in the report, we’ve established the identities of both SEC employees.

They are: Douglas Gordimer and Robert Long, both senior investigators at the SEC’s Fort Worth regional office. Knowing this, it’s possible to fill in almost all of the holes left by SEC censors, and better understand the enabling role that organization played in the Elgindy/Royer scams.

It all began in March of 2000, when Royer, then a special agent with the FBI’s White Collar Crime Unit, contacted Gordimer about Broadband Wireless (BBAN), a public company Royer was investigating. We know from other sources that Royer would later inform Elgindy associate Derrick Cleveland of the subsequent SEC investigation into BBAN, and that both Cleveland and Elgindy illegally (and profitably) used that information to short the company’s stock ahead of the investigation’s disclosure.

The BBAN situation apparently gave Elgindy a really bad idea: to use Royer as a conduit for acquiring negative, confidential information about potential shorting targets, and as a catalyst for launching SEC investigations into companies Elgindy was already shorting.
According to the IG report:

During the course of the BBAN investigation, Royer began to contact Gordimer to “try to get the Commission to investigate” various other companies and individuals based on information that Royer provided to Gordimer. Royer would tell Gordimer that “he had some information about [alleged securities laws violations by public companies] that he wanted to pass along” and would ask “who at the SEC might have an open investigation about the company.” (OIG-512 report p.4)

In response to Royer’s requests, Gordimer acknowledged that he would perform a search in the NRSI database, which he described as “an internal SEC database that shows all the open investigations and closed investigations and filings of different entities,” to determine if the SEC currently had an open investigation for the company or individual. (OIG-512 report p.5)

In addition to providing this information, according to Gordimer if there was an existing investigation of the company or individual about which Royer had inquired, Gordimer would refer Royer to the SEC staff attorney conducting the investigation. If the SEC did not currently have an open investigation of the company or individual about which Royer inquired, Gordimer would take the information from Royer and look into it himself. (OIG-512 report p.5)

Gordimer testified that he knew Royer lacked the proper authorization to request such confidential information, but that he freely provided it anyway.

In September 2000, Royer’s involvement in the FBI’s White Collar Fraud unit ceased as he was transferred to Gallup, NM, tasked with investigating crimes on an area Indian reservation. And yet, Royer’s calls to the SEC continued, and in January 2001, Royer also began calling Robert Long, probing for information on confidential investigations and lobbying to get others started.

During this period, Gordimer and Long also began to deal directly with Elgindy, and both became frequent readers of his website, insidetruth.com.

Later in 2001, Gordimer acknowledged that he became aware of a correlation between the stocks that Royer asked him to investigate and the stocks that Elgindy discussed on insidetruth.com. Despite knowing about this correlation and Elgindy’s background, Gordimer insisted that Royer “wasn’t just fishing” for information by continuing to bring information to him, particularly as some of this information had resulted in the opening of a few “legitimate investigations.” (OIG-512 report p.7)

Royer informed Gordimer in January 2002 that “he was leaving the Bureau to go work for some investigative agency which…was associated [with] Elgindy. Gordimer later learned that Royer had received a job offer from Elgindy directly and that Royer would be working with…the company running Elgindy’s insidetruth.com. (OIG-512 report p.7)

Meanwhile, Royer’s requests for information about investigations into public companies slowed but did not stop, though Gordimer felt it prudent to no longer tell Royer exactly who was handling any active investigations, opting instead to provide the relevant SEC staffer with Royer’s number and instructions to get in touch with him. Either way, the outcome is the same: disclosure of confidential, highly material information to a business partner of known short seller Elgindy, despite past evidence of a correlation between such disclosures and shorting activity by Elgindy.

But wait, there’s more.

Despite the fact that Royer left the FBI altogether, Gordimer contacted Royer about an alleged false press release issued in March 2002. Gordimer said he needed information about the company “quickly” in order to determine whether the SEC should suspend trading of its stock.

The IG’s report summarizes the situation nicely as follows:

Therefore, by disclosing information to Royer about whether certain companies and individuals were under investigation, Gordimer released non-public information to Royer. Royer would then provide this information to Elgindy and his associates, and they would sell short the companies’ stock in order to earn illegal profits…By discussing non-public information with Royer without appropriate agency authorization on numerous occasions, the OIG finds that Gordimer repeatedly violated SEC policy. (OIG-512 report p.9)

Normally, such an overt pronouncement of culpability would equate to an explicit demand for one’s resignation, if not one’s termination. But lacking such authority, Kotz was forced to pass the baton to just about every one of Gordimer’s and Long’s superiors.

In light of the foregoing, these matters are being referred to the Director of Enforcement…the Associate Executive Director for Human Resources, the Associate General Counsel for Litigation and Administrative Practice, and the Ethics Counsel for consideration of disciplinary action against Gordimer and Long. (OIG-512 report p.13)

The outcome?

According to Kotz, “[Gordimer and Long] were issued written counseling memoranda and were required to attend training.” (OIG Semi-annual report, April 2010 p.67)

In other words, neither was held responsible for their deeply irresponsible behavior. And, in such a setting, the principle of moral hazard dictates that behavior will become increasingly irresponsible.

And it’s about to get much worse.

The only reason we know what little we do about the SEC’s culture of irresponsibility is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which imposes much transparency on government by empowering citizens seeking access to official records. It was through FOIA that we were finally able to grasp of the true depth of the illegal naked shorting problem. FOIA also helped to identify the motives behind the illegal firing of SEC investigator Gary Aguirre and the extent of the Commission’s failures in stopping the Madoff and Stanford Ponzi schemes. And not least, FOIA made it possible for Dave Patch to acquire the above-cited internal report detailing the SEC’s role in supporting Anthony Elgindy’s illegal trading racket.

In each of these cases, the SEC was held responsible for its screw-ups only after documentary evidence was revealed – and that was only possible through FOIA requests submitted by the public and news organizations.

Today, Fox Business reports that the SEC is claiming Section 929I of the recently-signed financial reform bill exempts it from complying with FOIA. In other words, the SEC currently finds itself in a regulator’s wonderland: all of the authority and none of the accountability. If ever there was a reason to urgently contact your representative in Congress, this is it. That body must be made aware of the disaster of unintended consequences buried in the legislation they just passed. Please contact yours immediately (you can find their contact information here).

Postscript: to learn more about the Elgindy/Royer case, check out his excellent report from the series American Greed.

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On Wall Street, membership has its privileges

On Wall Street, membership has its privileges

One of the great episodes of The Simpsons follows Homer as he comes to realize that not all Springfield citizens are treated equally.

The difference, Homer eventually discovers, is membership in a secret society known as the Stonecutters. Once on the inside, Homer is delighted to find his new affiliation subjects him to an enviable set of alternate rules.

Obviously, this is parody, but it succeeds because it’s based on a truth to which we can all relate: the belief that status bestows disproportionate advantage upon a privileged few – up to and including license to engage in illegal behavior.

Homer and the Stonecutters immediately came to mind upon learning that, from 2005 through 2009, Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) selectively disabled a system intended to block customers’ short sale orders when placed without valid locates, while the Fidelity-affiliated National Financial Securities (NFS) achieved the same end by creating an entirely separate system for certain customers disinterested in compliance with the rules governing how the rest of us can trade.

Shorting shares that have neither been borrowed nor, at a minimum, located for eventual borrowing, is an illegal and manipulative practice and the essence of naked short selling; and yet, Deutsche Bank and NFS decided certain customers were entitled to do it.

Back in 2006, small-time hedge fund manager Jeff Matthews announced he doubted naked shorting was possible because he didn’t know how to do it. In reality, the thing Matthews didn’t know (possibly to his credit) was the secret knock used to gain entrance to the mega-hedge fund speakeasy, where the real debauchery goes on.

Why should Matthews and others be excluded?

The better question is: why should anybody be included? I suspect the clients allowed to violate the law in this way also happened to be the ones paying Deutsche Bank and NFS the most in commissions. But this isn’t like a hotel claiming it’s full while holding a suite in reserve for someone more important than you, or NBA refs not calling traveling on the players everybody’s really paying to watch. Instead, when these two banks enabled such manipulative trading, they were silently transferring wealth from the masses into the accounts of the privileged few.

This is true of both long buyers and short sellers, for the longs saw their investments devalued by the naked shorting of stocks in their portfolios, while the shorts were forced to pay high premiums for hard-to-borrow stocks even as others were exempted from such inconvenient market forces as supply and demand. This happened across the market, but those who should be particularly bothered are the many Deutsche Bank and NFS account holders whose brokerages acted contrary to their best interests.

In fact, they ought to sue, in my opinion, to say nothing of what the Department of Justice ought to be doing about it.

Exactly how much did these years of market manipulation extract from investors? That’s impossible to know, however what I can say without doubt that it exceeds the combined $925,000 fine imposed by FINRA.

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Goldman’s gold has lost its luster

Goldman’s gold has lost its luster

The most clichéd, yet satisfying, moment in any movie comes when the brutally bullying antagonist discovers he’s lost that which had empowered his abusive nature. Wait…I take that back. Seeing that fear in the bad guy’s eyes is the second most satisfying movie moment, the first being the inevitable administration of long-overdue justice that follows.

Though evidence has mounted for a while, today it became official: Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) is now on its own, as the guardian angel/demon that once enabled the firm’s assault on our capital markets has clearly severed that relationship. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from the news that Goldman was censured and fined by NYSE and the SEC for specific faults in “execution and clearing” (another way of saying “naked short selling”).

What changed? After all, Goldman is still rich, right?

Well…sort of. Goldman may be flush with cash, but with pressure mounting on politicians to reject any of it in the form of campaign contributions, suddenly that cash doesn’t spend nearly as well as it used to.  At the same time, it’s probably safe to assume Goldman’s allure as a future client has been severely degraded in the eyes of private sector career-minded regulators.

In other words, Goldman’s gold has lost its luster, and with it, the firm’s political ‘juice’. I can only imagine the look on their faces when Goldman brass first realized why their calls were not being returned: their power was gone. And folks with badges were knocking on the door.

Goldman’s role as a facilitator of illegal, short-side market manipulation will never come to symbolize its villainy in the mind of the public the way knowingly selling its clients garbage CDOs on behalf of John Paulson will. But that’s what makes this latest development even more significant: it suggests a sort of “piling on” mentality that was inconceivable just one month ago (keep in mind this is the company that, evidence suggests, successfully lobbied to have even legitimate short selling banned once the practice began to impact its share price). This, in turn, may be an inadvertent signal from regulatory “insiders” that Goldman’s prospects of emerging intact from this storm are slim.

Do not mistake the tone of this post for contentment, for this particular action doesn’t come close to addressing what I suspect is the true breadth and depth of Goldman’s role in short-side market manipulations. Indeed, the bulk of this particular complaint focuses on a few infractions observed over a few weeks in late 2008. Goldman, for its part, attributes the problem to an inconsequential bookkeeping error. If that’s true, a half-million dollar fine for an accounting mistake makes Goldman’s plight seem even more dire.

In the end, what’s most significant about this complaint is the insight it provides into how the system works when inappropriate influence ceases to be a factor in the regulatory process (something we’ve grown accustomed to not seeing): investigators investigate, infractions are cited, penalties applied, juice ignored.

I’m not convinced it’s within human nature to develop a financial markets regulatory paradigm able to consistently achieve this ideal (though I’m certain we can do better than what we’ve got). The alternative is to focus on the other side of the equation by limiting the capacity of any market participant to become so influential the rules cease to apply.

Posted in Featured Stories, Our Captured Federal Regulator the SEC, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (227)

The SEC and its culture of regulatory capture

The SEC and its culture of regulatory capture

Perspective is a funny thing. The full taxpayer cost of the S&L bailout came to an enormous, inflation-adjusted tab of around $255-billion; and yet, in the shadow of the latest spate of bank bailout checks written by Congress, that doesn’t seem like much. Similarly, the $60-billion Madoff fiasco tends to make the many Ponzi scheme busts that followed seem quaint by comparison, including the $7-billion scam allegedly carried out by Robert Allen Stanford’s firm.

Just to make sure everybody agrees that $7-billion is a lot of money – keep in mind it exceeds the GNP of 40% of the nations on earth. Imagine putting a match to all the goods and services produced in one year by the people of Laos or Mongolia. Stanford is accused of doing that, and more. But because it’s just a tenth of the wealth destroyed by Madoff, Stanford may forever be regarded a Ponzi also-ran.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the Stanford case is the bigger outrage by far, not so much for the scam itself, but for the shocking behavior of the regulators tasked with preventing it. Where Madoff was enabled by SEC bureaucratic incompetence, Stanford was empowered by overt SEC indifference.

That’s right – indifference. Unlike Meghan Cheung, the former head of enforcement at the SEC’s New York branch, who didn’t know how to determine whether Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, her counterpart in Fort Worth spent years swimming in evidence of Stanford’s scam, but simply preferred not to do anything about it.

The evidence, if you can stomach it, is oozing out of the report recently submitted by SEC Inspector General extraordinaire David Kotz. In it, we learn that SEC examiners spotted the red flags as early as 1997, and spent eight years lobbying then-chief of Fort Worth’s enforcement division, Spencer Barasch, to investigate. Barasch repeatedly declined, even as evidence of the Stanford scam – together with the size of the scam itself – grew exponentially.

The first referral by SEC examiners was sent to Barasch in 1998. According to the testimony of Julie Preuitt, who helped author the request, Barasch declined to investigate after discussing the matter with Stanford’s legal counsel at the time, former SEC Fort Worth District Administrator Wayne Secore.

According to the report:

Barasch told Preuitt “he asked Wayne Secore if there was a case there and Wayne Secore said that there wasn’t. So he was satisfied with that and decided not to pursue it further.”

Obviously, Barasch denies this, and such a claim would be difficult to believe were it not for the well-documented facts that follow.

Barasch finally left the SEC for a spot as partner in the law firm of Andrews Kurth in 2005, shortly after putting the kibosh on a third attempt by SEC examiners to investigate Stanford. Barasch’s replacement accepted a similar recommendation later that year, but the resulting inquiry was mismanaged and did not produce an enforcement case until February 2009, after the Commission’s hand was forced by Madoff’s admission two months earlier.

But it was what happened after Barasch’s departure from the SEC that casts his earlier actions in a much harsher light. As the investigation discovered:

[Barasch], who played a significant role in multiple decisions over the years to quash investigations of Stanford, sought to represent Stanford on three separate occasions after he left the Commission, and in fact represented Stanford briefly in 2006 before he was informed by the SEC Ethics Office that it was improper to do so.

The final of Barasch’s three attempts to represent Stanford was by far the most brazen, not to mention instructive. It happened in February 2009, immediately after the SEC filed suit against Stanford. Like the two before it, the third was also denied. When asked to justify the renewed request, Barasch replied,

“Every lawyer in Texas and beyond is going to get rich over this case. Okay? And I hated being on the sidelines.”

In email, veritas.

Not only was Barasch apparently numb to the definition of “ethical conflict,” he seems to have used it as a business development tool, at least that’s the impression left by an email not included in the Kotz report but acquired by the Dallas Morning News. According to the email, after Mark Cuban was sued by the SEC’s Fort Worth office for insider trading in 2008, Barasch told an associate of Cuban’s,

“I am friends with and helped promote two of the guys who signed the Complaint against Mark. Someone should tell Mark to look at my profile on my firm website, my SEC press releases, and advise Mark to add me to his defense team.”

It’s safe to say that Barasch plays the heavy in the IG’s report, but read it carefully, and you’ll find that he’s not the real villain. Instead, that role is played subtly but consistently by the broader SEC Enforcement Division’s flawed culture.

As the report stated,

We found that the Fort Worth Enforcement program’s decisions not to undertake a full and thorough investigation of Stanford were due, at least in part, to Enforcement’s perception that the Stanford case was difficult, novel and not the type favored by the Commission. The former head of the Fort Worth office told the OIG that regional offices were “heavily judged” by the number of cases they brought and that it was very important for the Fort Worth office to bring a high number of cases…The former head of the Examination program in Fort Worth testified that Enforcement leadership in Fort Worth “was pretty upfront” with the Enforcement staff about the pressure to produce numbers and communicated to the Enforcement staff, “I want numbers. I want these things done quick.” He also testified that this pressure for numbers incentivized the Enforcement staff to focus on “easier cases” – “quick hits.”

And these instructions were predictably manifest in the handling of the Stanford case, as evidenced by the reaction to an anonymous Stanford insider’s letter, first sent to the NASD, denouncing Stanford as a Ponzi scheme. The letter was forwarded to the SEC where Barasch saw and ignored it, saying,

“Rather than spend a lot of resources on something that could end up being something that we could not bring, the decision was made to not go forward at that time, or at least to not spend the significant resources and wait and see if something else would come up.”

The report also cites a former Fort Worth office administrator who says Barasch and others in his group had been subjected to criticism from high-level SEC staff in Washington DC for “bringing too many Temporary Restraining Order, Ponzi, and prime bank cases.”

Accordingly, Fort Worth was admonished to avoid investigating “mainstream” cases in favor of simple accounting fraud.

Now, let’s take a step back to see what insights into the SEC’s enforcement paradigm might be gleaned from what we’ve learned so far.

  1. Given his actions both prior to and after leaving the Commission, I suspect Spencer Barasch’s approach to regulating Stanford – and presumably other entities – was heavily influenced by a desire to maximize his eventual private sector opportunities. This is further evidence that the significance of regulatory capture and the revolving door ethic in the minds of SEC enforcement officials cannot be overstated.
  2. Whereas “Ponzi and prime bank cases” most often apply to investing institutions, while accounting fraud charges are most often leveled against public companies, I suspect the high-level mandate to prefer the latter over the former to be the root of the SEC’s long-suspected anti-issuer/pro-institutional investor bias – or at the very least, further evidence of it.
  3. This apparent anti-issuer bias, paired with the report’s well-documented evidence of the SEC’s preference of case quantity over quality, offers additional support for the widely-held belief that cases against public companies are seen as low-hanging (and career-protecting) fruit in the eyes of Enforcement Division staffers.

If my conclusions are correct, then the Stanford outrage is not really about Spencer Barasch, but the SEC’s flawed enforcement culture, from Washington DC on down. I further suspect this culture to be a key factor in explaining the SEC’s role as enabler of the stock manipulation schemes extensively documented here on Deep Capture.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, consider the words of then-Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Linda Chatman Thomsen, responding to a question posed by a member of the audience following her keynote address at the US Chamber of Commerce’s 2008 Capital Markets Summit.

Audience member: “You spent a lot of time talking about insider trading and penny stock fraud, but you failed to mention an issue that’s of great concern to the Chamber, and that is naked short selling and the unsettled trades that can result from that. How can the Commission claim that it is serious about enforcement when millions of trades fail to settle every day and companies remain on Reg SHO Threshold Lists for years and years?”

Thomsen: “As to naked short selling, and more generally market manipulation generally, it is an area we are focused on. We have seen fewer cases in that arena because, often times, this is not necessarily with respect to naked shorts, but shorting or market manipulation more generally, because often the components of something that might look to be manipulative are all legal trades as you point out. So it’s a hard case to bring, which is not to say that it isn’t something that we don’t investigate, because we do. So I hear and understand the frustration of many on the subject of short selling generally. When we hear complaints about short selling—and, frankly, it is both short and naked short, it is a combination of both—we routinely hear from companies who’ve come in, who worry that they’re being shorted in an illegal way. We routinely take all that information in and look into it.

“And often times, as I think many defense counsel would be happy to tell you, when we dig in, what we find is that some of the information that has caused people to be shorting is actually true as to the company, and we may very well be confronted with two issues, one on the company and its disclosure side as well as on the trading side. But they’re very difficult cases, which is not to say that we aren’t focused on them and interested in them and indeed this new focus that we have on some smaller companies and smaller issuers will wrap some of those concerns into their focus as well.”

Thomsen’s answer needs to be examined from two angles: what she said and what she (meaning, her division) actually did.

What Thomsen said, was that when it comes to illegal, manipulative naked short selling, “it’s a hard case to bring,” and that it often it turns out the targeted company deserved to have its stock manipulated. But don’t worry…the SEC Division of Enforcement cares and regularly investigates complaints of illegal, manipulative short selling.

What Thomsen’s division actually did was quite different. We know this thanks to another outstanding report by SEC Inspector General David Kotz relating to the Commission’s handling of complaints of illegal, manipulative naked short selling between January 2007 and June 2008. What Kotz discovered was that of the more than 5,000 complaints received by the Division of Enforcement during that time, not one resulted in an investigation.

Kotz further found that while robust methods exist for dealing with complaints relating to “spam driven manipulations, unregistered online offerings and insider trading” (again, infractions typically committed by issuers), no written policies existed for dealing with complaints of illegal naked short selling. This “[has] the effect of naked short selling complaints being treated differently than other types of complaints.”

And in this case, “differently” meant “not at all.” This attitude closely mirrors that of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement as described in the Stanford report.

In my opinion, the best thing to happen to the SEC in many years is the arrival of Inspector General David Kotz. The second best thing is the February 2009 departure of Linda Thomsen. In the months following the arrival of Thomsen’s successor, Robert Khuzami, many encouraging developments have been observed, including two enforcement cases brought against manipulative naked short sellers, the permanent adoption of regulations greatly reducing instances of such manipulation, and the recent case brought against Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS). Each of these represents an important departure from the SEC’s long-standing anti-issuer/pro-bank approach to regulation.

These positive developments notwithstanding, the dysfunctional culture at the SEC’s Division of Enforcement was undoubtedly a long time in the making. As a result, it will require a long time to root out. Unfortunately, we don’t have a long time. Investor confidence in the fundamental fairness of our capital markets must be restored now, not as long as it takes the old guard’s institutional memory to fade away. Having read the Stanford report, the only practical solution I see is a new beginning. Congress needs to sunset the SEC on an immovable — and ideally not too distant — date certain and instruct the Department of Justice to have a replacement ready to begin work the next day.

The next best solution would be to disband the SEC entirely, and send big, red warning letters to all potential market participants, giving them fair warning that they’re on their own.

These may seem like desperate measures, but I suspect you’ll agree these are becoming increasingly desperate times.

Posted in Featured Stories, Our Captured Federal Regulator the SEC, The Deep Capture CampaignComments (83)

Podcast: Rexxfield repairs online reputations

Podcast: Rexxfield repairs online reputations

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There are, for the most part, two ways for non-insiders to improperly influence stock prices: either through manipulative trading or the spreading of misinformation.  Both are done with the intention of sparking unwarranted hype or panic in the broader market.

It was a combination of trade-based and information-based manipulation that led to the sudden collapse of both Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. In response, regulators finally made it much more difficult to engage in trade-based manipulation – on the short side, at least – and the result has been a dramatic reduction in the prevalence of the practice.

What has not been reduced is the prevalence of greed, which I’ve predicted would cause would-be manipulators to shift resources away from trade-based manipulation in favor of its information-based counterpart.

We all know what this means: more anonymous message board posters and bloggers making unsubstantiated claims about a company’s prospects. Whether done on the long or short side, this is wrong. But what makes it particularly pernicious on the short side is the lasting, negative impact the practice has on the reputations of real people, as a target company’s management is very frequently subjected to particularly libelous claims which inevitably accumulate and darken reputations as determined –more and more each day, unfortunately – by Google and other search engines unconcerned over the accuracy of the information they return in response to queries about real people and organizations.

That someone can spend years creating a good name for themselves and their company, only to have dedicated, anonymous miscreants tarnish both in a matter of months or even weeks at virtually zero cost is highly suggestive of a system that’s broken.

And yet it’s the one we’re stuck with.

Michael Roberts, founder of Rexxfield

Michael Roberts, founder of Rexxfield

The good thing about markets is that if needs develop, eventually, enterprising individuals will step in to fill them. In this case, the need is online reputation management and repair, and the enterprising individual is Michael Roberts, founder of Rexxfield, a company dedicated to reorganizing online information in favor of accuracy, fairness and balance.

Roberts arrived at the Rexxfield concept in the most genuine of ways: as a frustrated target of a vicious internet libel campaign. Eventually, Roberts took the lessons learned through the process of solving his own problems and built a company around them.

We met recently, and I recorded the conversation. Here are some of the highlights. I’ve also included portions of a chat I had with Patty McPeak, one of Rexxfield’s earliest clients. You may either download the mp3 or listen to it now, by clicking the “play” button below.

icon for podpress  Deep Capture Podcast: fixing internet libel [18:27m]: Hide Player | Play in Popup

(By the way, it’s worth pointing out that Michael’s online attacker recently pled guilty to a serious felony and is due in court on another shortly.)

If you or your company has been the target of an internet smear campaign, contact Michael Roberts at Rexxfield.com to learn more how to regain control of your online reputation.

Soundtrack (all songs available at Music Alley).
Dave Lambert Band: Berwick Road
Jim Fidler: I Still Remember
Josh Woodward: I’ll be right behind you Josephine
The Meshes: Irish Eye
Derek K. Miller: El Campo

Posted in AntiSocialMedia with Judd Bagley, Deep Capture Podcast, Featured StoriesComments (40)

Two must-read books for any market reformer

Two must-read books for any market reformer

Regular readers of this blog come from remarkably diverse backgrounds, but seem united by at least one shared experience: the act of having examined some aspect of our capital markets only to conclude that much of what the world has accepted as fundamental simply does not make sense.

Regulators refusing to regulate. Investigative reporters unwilling to investigate. Villains praised as heroes. Heroes marginalized as villains. Fact derided as fantasy. The valueless labeled “valuable”. Lies labeled “truth”. One plus one labeled “three”.

These are all symptoms of a financial system that is beyond broken…even beyond unhinged. It’s insane. And yet, in keeping with the black-is-white nature of Wall Street, those who say as much can expect to see their own sanity publicly questioned and, in the absence of external validation, possibly come to question it themselves.

If you can relate to this feeling, then take heart. Last month saw the publication of two books packed with the psychological healing capacity of a year’s worth of frustrated market reformer support group sessions: No one would Listen by first time author Harry Markopolos, and The Big Short by seasoned Wall Street chronicler Michael Lewis.

For all their differences of artistry and scope, in the end these books tell the stories of remarkably relatable individuals confronting the unpopular realization that large and seemingly trustworthy institutions were getting rich by playing the rest of us for fools and making mockeries of the markets in which they operated in the process.

In the case of No one would Listen, we follow the author himself through the process of uncovering the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, followed by his decade-long effort to expose it. Along the way, we’re given fly-on-the-wall access to his many infamously fruitless attempts to help complacent journalists and bumbling SEC staffers (Markopolos refers to the agency as “captured” at least a half-dozen times) recognize that “the world’s largest hedge fund is a fraud.”

In The Big Short, Lewis tells the stories of a small handful of investors as each came to their own realization of the tremendous gulf separating Wall Street’s portrayal of subprime mortgage-backed securities and their reality. These a-ha moments are neatly encapsulated by the line, attributed to Charlie Ledley of Cornwall Capital, who despaired, “in the course of trying to figure it out, we realized that there’s a reason why it doesn’t quite make sense to us. It’s because it doesn’t quite make sense.”

In both books, the protagonists’ disconcerting conclusions are backed up not only by subjective observation, but also by the kind of objective math anybody with finance training could duplicate, but which most chose to ignore for fear of what the conclusions might portend. In each case, the result was a generally-accepted delusion and limitless lessons on the shortcomings of human nature and how these – when aggregated on the market level – are ripe for exploitation.

Lewis maintains as his primary target the investment banks that peddled the deeply-flawed subprime mortgage-backed CDOs all the while planning (as we’ve been reminded today) to make money on their inevitable failure, as well. Markopolos expends most of his ammunition on the SEC, while saving some fire for uninspired business reporters and the culture of greed-induced blindness that permeates the hedge fund industry.

In terms of style and mechanics, I much preferred The Big Short, as it is one of the most masterfully woven works of non-fiction I’ve ever experienced. Lewis paints compelling pictures of his players and their circumstances, making them feel quite familiar. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so unhappy to reach a book’s final page.

Markopolos, on the other hand, is a numbers person by profession, not a writer. And while his is a superb first effort, it’s afflicted by a few awkwardly executed patches that left the book feeling about 30 pages too long; much the same way I suspect Markopolos’ frequently-acknowledged eccentricities likely result in conversations with him lasting just slightly longer than they should.

While The Big Short offers near perfection, if forced to pick one work over the other for readers of Deep Capture, I’d have to recommend No one would Listen, for two reasons.

First, as culpable as the banks are, their behavior is merely a product of the regulatory environment in which they’ve operated for the past 20 years. To understand why criminals abound, you must start by understanding why the cops are absent, and this is what Markopolos accomplishes.

Second, because readers of this blog seem drawn to stories marked by a clear delineation between right and wrong, I suspect No one would Listen will be the more satisfying read in the end. Indeed, throughout The Big Short, I was nagged by the feeling that while those who anticipated and profited from the bursting of the CDO bubble were likely smarter than those who profited from its inflation, they’re not necessarily better people. This was made especially clear to me through the story of Howie Hubler, a Morgan Stanley bond trader whose narrative – but for a single poorly-conceived trade (which ended up costing Hubler’s firm $9-billion) – would have followed an arc comparable to that of the heroically-portrayed Michael Burry or Steve Eisman. Harry Markopolos, on the other hand, is obviously a different kind of person and, of the many characters across both books, the one I’d want to have as a neighbor or meet over lunch. Where Lewis offers a limitlessly captivating story about economics, Markopolos offers a deeply endearing if slightly flawed story about character.

Fortunately, I don’t have to pick one book over the other. I can – and do – recommend both as great reads and invaluable reminders that it’s the system that’s insane, not us.

Posted in Featured StoriesComments (41)

SEC’s Schapiro on market manipulation

This clip, which recently aired on CNBC, is probably the best insight yet into the current mindset of SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro, with respect to enforcing  laws against illegal market manipulation.

My impressions:

  • [00:25]Anybody who was manipulating the market or spreading false rumors potentially was violating the securities laws.”
    Potentially?(!) Isn’t market manipulation, by definition, a violation of the securities laws? Wasn’t the SEC itself created to restore public confidence in fair (meaning, non-manipulated) markets? I really doubt this is how Chairman Schapiro would have made this point in writing, but the off-the-cuff nature of the response makes it all the more indicative of how her organization really approaches the issue, I’m afraid.
  • [00:30] Even Chairman Cox has said subsequently that the ban on short selling and the other measures the SEC took might not have been the right thing to do at the time.”
    On this point, we agree. The ban on legitimate short selling was a ridiculous measure that some evidence strongly suggests was enacted solely to benefit Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
  • [1:29] Here, Chairman Schapiro offers her interpretation of the SEC’s new Rube Goldberg approach to dealing with bear raids. It takes her three dozen words to describe a likely counter-productive attempt to artificially solve a problem that I can naturally solve in six words: “borrow the shares, settle the trades.”
  • [2:10] (regarding whether or not manipulation was involved in the take-downs of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) “The review is ongoing and we will go wherever the evidence leads us.”
    This made me angry, whereas up to that point, I was mostly amused. It’s been two years since Bear and 18 months since Lehman fell, sparking the largest economic crisis in our lifetimes, and the SEC’s review of is “ongoing”? The SEC “will go where the evidence leads”? This despite signs of illegal manipulation so obvious that former SEC Enforcement Director Irving Pollack compared them to the lights on an airport runway:
    “This isn’t a trail of breadcrumbs; this audit trail is lit up like an airport runway.You can see it a mile off. Subpoena e-mails. Find out who spread false rumors and also shorted the stock and you’ve got your manipulators.”
    This is insulting. Chairman Schapiro should treat us as adults and admit that the “review” is long over, assuming it ever really began.

Posted in The Deep Capture CampaignComments (44)

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