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The Markit Group: A Black-Box Company that Devastated Markets

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The Markit Group: A Black-Box Company that Devastated Markets


Although much attention has been directed at the contribution made by credit default swaps  to the financial crisis, most discussion has focused on the companies, such as American International Group, that posted big losses because they sold these instruments without sufficient due diligence.

Another line of inquiry has not been pursued, however, though it is of equal, and perhaps greater, significance. That line of inquiry concerns the way in which the prices of credit default swaps effect the perceived value of all forms of debt — corporate bonds, commercial mortgages, home mortgages, and collateralized debt obligations — and as a result, the ability of hedge funds manipulators to use credit default swaps to enhance their bear raids on public companies.

If short sellers can manipulate the price of credit default swaps, they can disrupt those companies whose debt is insured by the credit default swaps whose prices are manipulated.  The game plan runs as follows: find a company that relies on a layer of debt that is both permanent, and which rolls over frequently (most financial firms fit this description). Short sell that company’s stock. Then manipulate the price of the CDS upwards, preferably into a spike, as you spread the news of the skyrocketing CDS price (perhaps with the cooperation of compliant journalists at, say, CNBC).

Because the CDS is, in essence, an insurance policy on the debt of the company, the spiking CDS pricing will cause the company’s lenders to panic and cut off access to credit. As this happens, the company’s stock will nosedive, thereby cutting off access to equity capital. Thus suddenly deprived of credit and equity, the firm collapses, and the hedge fund collects on its short bets.

Moreover, credit default swap prices are the primary inputs for important indices (such as the CMBX and the ABX) measuring the movement of the overall market for commercial and home mortgages.  In the months leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, short sellers pointed to these indices in order to argue  that investment banks – most notably Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers – had overvalued the mortgage debt and property on their books. Meanwhile, several hedge funds made billions in profits betting that those indexes would drop.

It should therefore be a matter of some concern that credit default swap “prices” and the indexes derived from them are determined almost entirely by a little company with zero transparency and, it appears probable, a high exposure to influence from market manipulators. The company is called Markit Group, and there is every reason to believe that its CDS-driven indices (the CMBX, the ABX, and several others) are inaccurate, while the credit default swap “prices” that they publish  and which rock the market are in fact  nowhere close to the prices at which credit default swaps actually trade.

Last year, the media reported that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo had sent subpoenas to Markit Group as part of an investigation into possible manipulation of credit default swap prices by short sellers. This investigation, like Mr. Cuomo’s other investigations into market manipulation, have yielded no prosecutions.

The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating Markit Group for anti-trust violations. This investigation (which is reportedly focused on how Markit Group packages and sells its information) seems to acknowledge that Market Group has near-monopolistic control of information about credit default swap prices. However, if the press reports are correct, the DOJ has not considered the possible appeal of this monopolistic control to market manipulators.

Meanwhile, Henry Hu, the director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s division of risk, has said that it has been nearly impossible for the SEC to conduct investigations into any matter concerning credit default swaps because the commission does not have access to any data on the trading of CDSs. In itself, this is a shocking admission.  It is all the more shocking when one considers that the necessary data exists and might be in the hands of the Markit Group – a black box company based in London.

A thorough investigation of Markit Group is urgently required.

Here is what we know so far:

  • Markit Group was co-founded by Rony Grushka, Lance Uggla, and Kevin Gould. Prior to founding Markit Group, Mr. Grushka’s main line of business was investing in Bulgarian property developments. He recently resigned from the board of Orchid Developments Group, an Israeli-invested company based in Sophia, Bulgaria. Messrs. Uggla and Gould formerly worked for Toronto-Dominion Bank in Canada.
  • Markit Group’s founders also include four hedge funds. However, Markit Group refuses to disclose the names of those hedge funds. In response to an inquiry, a Markit Group spokesman said it was “corporate policy” to keep the names of the hedge funds secret, but he would not say why Markit Group had such a policy. It seems worth knowing whether those hedge funds have any influence over Markit Group’s published information or indexes, and whether those hedge funds are trading on that information. It would also be worth knowing whether those hedge funds or affiliated hedge funds have engaged in short selling of public companies whose debt and stock prices were profoundly affected by the information that Markit Group published.
  • Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and several other investment banks also have ownership stakes in Markit Group. The investment banks received their stakes in exchange for providing trading data to Markit Group. It would be worth knowing whether these investment banks engaged in short selling ahead of Markit Group’s published indexes and price quotations.
  • Markit Group is secretive about how it creates its indexes. In early 2008, the Wall Street Journal noted that the CMBX simply “doesn’t make sense” and that Markit Group’s indexes “might be exaggerating the amount of distress” in the home and commercial mortgage markets. In 2008, the average prediction for defaults on commercial mortgages was 2%. The CMBX implied that the default rate could be four times that level.
  • When short seller David Einhorn initiated his famous public attack on Lehman Brothers, one of his central arguments was that the CMBX (the index that was likely “exaggerating the amount of distress”) proved that Lehman had overvalued the commercial mortgages on its books.
  • In March 2008, the Commercial Mortgage Securities Association sent a letter to Markit Group asking it disclose basic information about how the CMBX index is created and its daily trading volume. “The volatility in the CMBX index, caused by short sellers, distorts the true picture of the value of commercial-mortgage-backed securities,” the group said in a statement.
  • Markit Group is equally secretive about how it derives its “prices” for credit default swaps. A spokesman for the company spent close to one hour talking to Deep Capture. He did his job well and sounded like he was trying to be helpful. But he told us as little as possible.
  • However, in the course of this conversation, we did learn that Markit Group’s “prices” are not actual, traded prices. They are mere quotations. The Markit Group has what it calls “contributors” – hedge funds and broker-dealers that provide it with information. Markit Group has a grand total of 22 “contributors.” Deep Capture asked Markit Group’s spokesman for the names of these “contributors.” The spokesman said he would try to find out the names and call back later. He never called back.
  • The 22 “contributors” provide Markit Group with quotations, and these quotations become the Markit Group’s “price.” In other words, the “contributors” can quote any price for a CDS that they choose, regardless of whether anyone is actually willing to buy the CDS at that price. Markit Group looks at these quotations. Then it somehow decides which quotations make the most sense. Then it publishes information that purports to represent the actual market price of that CDS. This process is certainly unscientific. And it is ripe for abuse.
  • Consider, for example, the Markit Group “price” for CDSs insuring the debt of company X.  The Markit Group price strongly suggests that company X is going to default on its debt in the immediate future. Short sellers eagerly point to the Markit Group CDS “price” as evidence that company X is doomed. Panic ensues, and suddenly, company X really is doomed. But the fact is, nobody ever bought a company X CDS at the price quoted by Markit Group. Rather, that panic-inducing “price” was, in effect, pulled out of a hat. Who pulled it out of a hat? That is matter of immense importance. There are two possible scenarios:
  • The first possible scenario is that the 22 “contributors” report their quotations in good faith. They should be sending the actual traded price, not just a quotation, but assume they are just doing what was asked of them. From these quotations, Markit Group somehow decides what the “price” should be. It is possible that this decision is based on some secret formula (which would be worrisome); or it is possible that Markit Group executives sit around a table debating what the price should be and take a shot in the dark (which would be even more worrisome); or it is possible that Markit Group deliberately chooses the most horrifying price possible in order to assist the short sellers who are affiliated with its owners (which would be a matter for the authorities).
  • The second possible scenario is that Markit Group acts in good faith (if not scientifically), but one or more of the 22 “contributors” or their affiliates has an interest in seeing company X fail. If just one of those “contributors” sends in an astronomically high quotation, that could be enough. Markit Group factors the absurd quotation into its posted “price” and it suddenly becomes possible to convince the world that company X is about to default on its debt.  Panic ensues, the firm’s layer of debt dries up, the stock price plunges, and perhaps the “contributor” or its affiliate make a lot of money.
  • As Deep Capture understands it, CDS quotations suggested by the 22 “contributors” also help determine the movement of the CMBX and ABX indexes. The movement of these indexes did serious damage to the American economy in multiple ways. The  indexes prompted write downs at most of the major banks and mortgage companies. They were ammunition for short sellers, like David Einhorn, who claimed that companies had cooked their books by not writing down to the rock bottom prices suggested by the Markit Group indexes. They helped precipitate the decline in prices of mortgage securities, and contributed mightily to the panic that spread across the markets.  A lot of people made a lot of money as result of those indexes moving downward. So, it is rather important to know more about how those indexes are formulated, and if they can be driven by the same people who are making directional bets on their movements.

Conclusion: Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a credit default swap. Six years ago, a very small number of investors traded credit default swaps as hedges against the long-shot possibility of corporate defaults. Nobody looked to credit default swaps as reliable indicators of corporate well-being.

Then, suddenly, there were over $60 trillion in credit default swaps outstanding. That is, over the course of a few years, somebody had made over $60 trillion (many times the gross domestic product) in long shot bets that borrowers would default on their debt. As this derivative risk marbled through the system, the trading in credit default swaps was completely opaque. Nobody knew who bought them, who sold them, or at what price.

But starting in 2001, we knew the “prices” of CDSs. We knew the “prices” because two Canadians, a developer of Bulgarian real estate, and four mysterious hedge funds had founded a small, black-box company in London. That company, the Markit Group, achieved near-monopolistic power to publicize the “prices” through its magic process of aggregating quotation information provided by 22 hedge funds and broker-dealers who could well have been betting on the downstream effects of sudden price changes.

These “prices” were not prices in any meaningful sense of the term.  But, suddenly, these “prices” became perhaps the single most important indicator of corporate well-being. Assuming that those four hedge funds and the 22 “contributors” (or hedge funds affiliated with them) bet against public companies, it seems more than possible that short-sellers got to run the craps table, call the dice, and place bets, all at the same time.

So perhaps it is not surprising that a lot of long-shot rolls paid off quite nicely.

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Wall Street Journal Reports that Short Selling Fueled Panic


Journalists who write about short selling hedge funds fall into three categories.

The first category is comprised of a very small number of journalists who have deliberately whitewashed the dubious activities of their short selling sources. These journalists–such as Herb Greenberg (whose stories for MarketWatch.com invariably served the interests of the same short sellers who are now paying Herb’s salary), and former BusinessWeek reporter Gary Weiss (who works with a cast of convicted criminals and flimflammers to smear the reputations of people who are critical of short selling crimes)–are, at some level, corrupt.

The second, larger category is comprised of journalists who gorge on the junk food fed to them by the hedge fund lobby, subsequently farting out the predictable fog – “short sellers are vital to the markets;” “short sellers are vital media sources;” “short sellers were right about company X because company X is now bankrupt.” To which you say, yeah, but some of those short sellers commit crimes that destroy companies – and the journalists say, yeah, that might be, but it’s hard to prove a crime, deadlines loom, and sloth has its appeal, so “fart, fart, fart.”

The third category is comprised of the small but growing number of journalists who have actually spent some time chewing on the data and the evidence – and are now digesting this nourishing roughage into something a bit more solid – something like stories that show that short selling shenanigans just might have contributed to the near total collapse of the American financial system.

As evidence that the latter sort of journalists do, indeed, exist, consider that no less than five Wall Street Journal reporters spent several weeks working together on an investigative story about how short selling might have helped fuel the panic that nearly took down Morgan Stanley in September.

The result, published yesterday, revealed that:

  • Hedge fund managers Dan Loeb and Israel Englander pulled their money out of Morgan after taking large short positions in the company. Jim Chanos, head of the short seller lobby, also yanked his money, though he claims not to have been short Morgan. (The unstated suggestion is that the shorts might have worked together – simultaneously pulling their billions in order to create the illusion of a run on the bank.)
  • At the same time that the hedge funds were yanking their money and taking big short positions, somebody bombarded the market with false rumors about Morgan losing access to credit. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into whether short sellers were responsible for these rumors.
  • While the false rumors circulated, the price of Morgan Stanley credit default swaps soared. The New York AG and the SEC are examining “whether traders bought swaps at high prices to spark fear about Morgan’s stability in order to profit on other trading positions [short sales], and whether trading involved bogus price quotes and sham trades.”
  • This “pattern of trading, which previously had battered securities firms Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman, now is dogging Citigroup, whose stock fell 60% last week to a 16-year low.” (The unstated suggestion, contrary to what the Journal used to tell us all the time, is that it is not just “bad management” that causes stock prices to lose half their value in a few days.)

The Journal might have done one better by noting that Loeb, Englander, and Chanos are part of a tight clique of hedge fund managers who tend to attack the same companies.

The Journal might also have pointed out that when these hedge fund managers attack, they often “share ideas” (ie., spout the same false information and distorted analysis about their victim companies, sometimes anonymously on Internet message boards).

And it would have been worth noting that the companies targeted by these hedge fund managers are invariably victimized by naked short selling. That is, whenever these particular hedge funds are swarming, somebody is selling a lot of stock that they do not possess, and therefore failing to deliver the stock on time.

The SEC’s “failure to deliver” data for September will become public in a couple of weeks. If the data shows, as I suspect it will, that Morgan Stanley was targeted by illegal naked short selling, then maybe The Wall Street Journal will do a follow-up report.

Before that, The Journal’s reporters could take a look at the data through June, which shows quite clearly that in addition to the “pattern of trading” cited in yesterday’s story, Bear Stearns was buried under waves of naked short selling, beginning in January. On the day that CNBC’s David Faber reported the false news (fed to him by a hedge fund “I have known for twenty years”) that Goldman Sachs had cut off Bear’s access to credit, more than a million shares of Bear Stearns were sold naked, failing to be delivered within the allotted three days. Most of those shares – and another 10 million Bear Stearns shares sold short in March – have, to this day, never been delivered.

Then there is the data that shows that, market wide, “failures to deliver” doubled between 2007 and 2008, and peaked at 2 billion shares at the end of June – just before the SEC issued its July 15 “emergency order” protecting 19 big financial institutions from naked short selling.

While the “emergency order” was in place, stock prices increased dramatically. Within weeks after the “emergency order” was lifted, a number of those 19 protected companies – including Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac – saw their stocks plunge to crisis levels, and were then vaporized, nationalized, or bailed out.

The data through June shows that nearly all of those companies had been hit with massive levels of naked short selling, with between one million and 12 million shares failing to deliver in multiple spurts of several days. Washington Mutual, IndyMac, and a few dozen other now-defunct financial companies were clobbered with even higher levels of fails — day after day for weeks on end. Many non-financial companies have been hit even harder.

In fact, the available data understates the problem. There could be ten, 100, or many more times as many failures to deliver, but we cannot know for sure because that black-box Wall Street outfit called the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation refuses to release more complete data. It also refuses to reveal which criminal hedge funds are engaged in naked short selling.

Meanwhile, the DTTC vehemently denies that naked short selling is a problem and attacks journalists, critics, and former DTTC employees who say otherwise – all part of a disinformation campaign orchestrated with help from the corrupt former BusinessWeek reporter Gary Weiss and his criminal accomplices, some of whom are paid by Dan Loeb, the hedge fund manager who features in yesterday’s Journal story.

Gary has gone so far as to hijack Wikipedia in cahoots with a Wikipedia administrator and former MI6 agent named Linda Mack. Anybody is supposed to be able to edit the online encyclopedia, but until recently only Gary and Linda Mack could touch the entry on “naked short selling” (which of course said there is no such crime). Gary flat out denies working with the DTCC and says that if somebody saw him go into the DTTC’s office, it was to “use an ATM machine.” He also continues to flat-out deny that he has ever edited Wikipedia, even though he has been exposed by The Register, a respected British publication.

After The Wall Street Journal figures out why the DTTC is protecting criminals, it could investigate why the SEC has never prosecuted a hedge fund for naked short selling, and why the Wall Street cronies who run the commission quashed at least two major investigations into suspected short selling crimes.

One of those investigations (targeting research firm Gradient Analytics, but meant to be the beginning of larger inquiry into the activities of Gradient’s short selling clients, was shut down under pressure from the aforementioned corrupt journalists, several of whom (Herb Greenberg, Jim Cramer, and Carol Remond of Dow Jones Newswires) had received government subpoenas because of their unusually close ties to Gradient and the aforementioned clique of short sellers.

Another investigation (into suspected naked short selling that SEC whistleblower Gary Aguirre described in a letter to the U.S. Congress as having the potential to “seriously injure the financial markets”) was shut down under pressure from Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, who apparently had “juice” at the SEC. (For details see the U.S. Senate’s 700 page report on the matter. When the Senate refers to “market manipulation,” it is describing naked short selling.)

In yesterday’s story, The Journal notes that “sales of credit-default swaps were a profit gold mine for Wall Street. But, ironically, during those tumultuous few days in mid-September, the swaps market turned on Morgan Stanley like a financial Frankenstein.”

The Journal should have noted that naked short selling, too, was a gold mine for Morgan Stanley, and that given Mack’s role in shutting down the SEC investigation, it is kind of ironic that the Morgan CEO later found himself complaining to the SEC that short sellers had illegally manipulated his stock to single digits. Indeed, this was a stunning admission that a crime long denied by Wall Street does, in fact, occur.

The Journal could also investigate why the aforementioned corrupt journalists smeared Gary Aguirre, circulating the story (completely false, according to the U.S. Senate and the SEC inspector general, and all available evidence) that the SEC whistleblower had been fired for poor performance. There is also the question as to why these journalists, most of whom have yet to publish a story that was not sourced from the aforementioned clique of hedge funds, went to such lengths to smear other critics of naked short selling – everybody from Deep Capture reporter Patrick Byrne to the blogger who calls himself the Easter Bunny. .

The Journal might also be interested to know that one of those short selling hedge funds, Kingsford Capital (managed by corrupt journalist Herb Greenberg’s former co-editor at TheStreet.com) announced that it would begin paying my salary at the Columbia Journalism Review (where I was then an editor), just before CJR was going to publish a story about naked short sellers (including Kingsford Capital) and captured journalists (including Herb). Indeed, three of the four journalists who have begun work on major stories about naked short selling have ended up shelving or watering down their stories, not long before receiving funding or salaries from this same clique of hedge funds (more on this in a coming dispatch).

Perhaps a shifty hedge fund will offer jobs to the Journal’s hard-working reporters, too. Either that, or they will get smeared as “conspiracy theorists” or “knuckleheads who don’t understand markets and were fired from their previous jobs.” Maybe the hard-working reporters will give up.

Or maybe they’ll keep chewing on the facts and publish a story about how captured regulators, corrupt journalists, a colorful cast of convicted criminals, the black box DTTC, and the aforementioned clique of hedge funds all sought to cover-up a crime that is now implicated in the greatest market cataclysm since 1929.

Now, that would be some good shit.

* * * * * * * *

Tipsters, crusaders, and thinkers — feel free to contact me at mitch0033@gmail.com. Same goes for journalists wishing to obtain data and evidence — free of charge, of course.

If this article concerns you, and you wish to help, then:

1) email it to a dozen friends;

2) go here for additional suggestions: “So You Say You Want a Revolution?

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