I received an email a while back from Jim Brickman, a crony of short selling hedge fund manager David Einhorn, demanding that I post the Securities and Exchange Commission inspector general’s report on the commission’s investigation of Allied Capital. According to Brickman, the report proves that Einhorn was right about Allied being a massive fraud. Moreover, says Brickman, the report definitively establishes that Einhorn did not seek to drive down Allied’s stock price. The report, which I gladly post below, does nothing of the sort. I will discuss the report in further detail, but first a little history.
Eight years ago, Michael Milken, the famous financial criminal, appeared in the offices of a top Allied Capital executive. “You know,” Milken told the executive, “I already am quite a large shareholder of your stock – but my name will never show up on any list you’ll see.”
This might have been a reference to a practice called “parking stock” (owning stock but “parking” it in the accounts of friends with whom one has made under-the-table arrangements), a practice that figured in the high-count indictment that sent Milken to prison in the 1980s. It appeared to the Allied executive that Milken was fishing for inside information about Allied and threatening an attack. For a variety of reasons, short-side stock manipulators in the Milken network often accumulate large numbers of shares in the companies that they seek to destroy.
Not long after Milken’s strange appearance, David Einhorn was at a hedge fund luncheon, sitting next to Carl Icahn, one of Milken’s closest cronies. Einhorn launched his career working for Gary Siegler, who was formerly a top partner in Icahn’s investment fund, and is certainly part of the Milken network. So, it was not surprising to Allied’s executives when, halfway through the luncheon, Einhorn declared that “Allied Capital is going to zero!”
For the next eight years, Einhorn led a vicious campaign against Allied, loudly and publicly pronouncing that the company was a massive Ponzi scheme and an all-around fraud that could be as big as Enron. Of course, Einhorn’s vituperative remarks had nothing to do with the massive profits that Einhorn stood to earn from short selling Allied’s stock. Rather, Einhorn was just doing his duty as a concerned citizen – or so his slick public relations operation would have us believe.
I will give Einhorn credit. He is a master of spin. In 2008, he published an aptly titled book, “Fooling Some of the People All of the Time”, wherein he provided an ingeniously self-serving portrait of himself as a tenacious hero doing battle against not only the evil Allied Capital, but also powerful Washington insiders, financial journalists, and government regulators – i.e. all the people who reviewed his “evidence” and concluded that Allied was by no means a massive fraud.
Really, Einhorn’s book should be placed in a glass case at the Museum of Contemporary Propaganda, as it is such a work of art. Anyone familiar with the world of abusive short selling will read this book and see that Einhorn engaged in all manner of shenanigans to obtain inside information and drive down Allied’s stock price. But the dark genius of Einhorn’s book is that it manages to portray his malefaction as par for the course – just another day in the life of a noble fraud-buster.
For example, Einhorn admits in his book that he invested in a fund run by a man who had recently served as the chairman of Allied Capital’s board of directors. Could this investment have been a bribe? Was Einhorn seeking inside information about Allied? Certainly not. The investment was purely incidental, Einhorn assures us. And you, dear reader, should be ashamed of yourself for even asking such questions. Indeed, your suspicions make you part of the problem. You are an ignorant thug who wants to “intimidate” Einhorn and other short selling “critics” who selflessly do battle with public corporations.
In his book, Einhorn notes the SEC initiated an investigation into his short selling of Allied Capital. In the course of this rather cursory investigation, an SEC official sought to determine whether Einhorn was colluding with other hedge funds, including William Ackman’s Gotham Partners (now called Pershing Square Capital) and Whitney Tilson’s T2 Partners, to drive down Allied’s stock. The official asked this question: “Mr. Einhorn, have you ever compensated [short selling hedge fund] Gotham Partners…for providing you with an investment idea?”
Einhorn answered, “Except in-kind, no.” Then Einhorn consulted with his lawyer and changed his mind. He went back to the SEC official and said, “I think the more correct answer to your question is that there’s been no compensation for the ideas.” The moral of this story, according to Einhorn’s book, is that the investigator was a bumbling idiot for asking such a question. And, you, dear reader – don’t even think of asking the same question. If you do, you’re part of the problem. You’re trying to “intimidate” Einhorn.
You see, it is perfectly natural for hedge funds to share ideas. Of course, hedge funds must not be required to report their short positions to the SEC or otherwise disclose their “proprietary trading strategies.” Hedge fund trading is top-secret so far as the public is concerned. But, says Einhorn, when we hedge funds “share ideas,” it’s just us pros talking shop. Really, says Einhorn, you can trust me…and, oh, did I say “payment in-kind”? Oops — slip of the mind.
Is it possible that hedge funds exchange “ideas” because it is profitable for them to do so? Surely not. Is it possible that these “idea” exchanges are nothing more than collusion – hedge funds agreeing to pile on to the same companies to put downward pressure on stock prices? How dare you ask such a question. Allied Capital asked that question. And Allied is very bad, says Einhorn — Allied tried to “intimidate” me!
Really, Einhorn says this all the time – people tried to “intimidate” him. He was hurt. But he’s a hero. He stood up to the critics. And, he assures us in his book, it was perfectly natural for him to collude (sorry, “share ideas”) with not just Tilson and Ackman, but also Eastbourne Capital’s Jim Carruthers. You see, Carruthers is really smart guy who does good research.
What Einhorn does not mention in his book is that Carruthers has sometimes spelled his name with a ‘K’ to disguise his identity while passing himself off as a friendly private investigator in order to deceptively acquire inside information from companies like Allied Capital. But let’s not criticize Carruthers. We don’t want to “intimidate” him. We don’t want to be part of the problem.
And shame on the SEC for having the temerity to investigate Einhorn. In fact, the SEC did nothing but ask Einhorn a few questions. Meanwhile, Einhorn convinced the SEC to launch an investigation of Allied. Then Einhorn all but directed this massive but ultimately misguided investigation for a period of three long years.
As Einhorn admits in his book, his hedge fund partner had a “social” relationship with William Donaldson, then the Chairman of the SEC. That’s how Einhorn got the investigation of Allied started. As the investigation progressed, Einhorn says, SEC officials even asked him to be their “cartographer” – outlining all the ways in which Allied was supposedly a massive Ponzi scheme, and also failing to mark its assets to “fair value” (i.e. the arbitrary value at which Einhorn believed the assets could be sold in a fire sale).
Clearly, Wall Street miscreants like Einhorn had captured the SEC to the point where the Wall Street miscreants were virtually running the place. But in the upside down reality presented by Einhorn’s book, the fact that a few SEC officials doubted the hedge fund manager’s sincerity is proof that the commission had been corrupted, not by Wall Street miscreants, but by corporate executives who wanted to “intimidate” Einhorn.
That’s right, the SEC, following Einhorn’s orders in microscopic detail, conducted an investigation of Allied that was so huge that Allied had to create a “Department of Investigations” to handle all of the commission’s requests for new information. But it was Allied’s executives, not Einhorn, who were peddling influence at the SEC. You don’t believe it? Read Einhorn’s book – agitprop at its best.
As for the media – well, Einhorn is deeply disappointed. Of course, Einhorn heaps praise on journalists such as Jesse Eisenger, then of The Wall Street Journal; Carol Remond of Dow Jones Newswires; and Herb Greenberg, formerly of MarketWatch.com and TheStreet.com. These journalists wrote multiple negative and false stories about Allied Capital, precisely mimicking Einhorn’s allegations that the company was a massive fraud.
As it happens, these are the same journalists that Deep Capture has shown to have had too-cozy, and in some instances, outright corrupt relationships with a select crew of short selling hedge fund managers, including David Einhorn. Indeed, it is fair to say that Einhorn and others in his network had captured some of the biggest names in financial journalism to the point where the hedge fund managers were able to virtually dictate the journalists’ stories.
But Einhorn was disappointed – the media failed him. That is to say, a number of honest journalists looked at Einhorn’s “evidence” and concluded that it was balderdash of the highest order. But, no, these journalists were not honest. They were ignoramuses. They are part of the problem. They should be publicly shamed. One of them even investigated Einhorn. This was an outrage. It was hurtful. It was “intimidation.”
Look, lying and cheating short-sellers are essential watchdogs, they add liquidity to the markets, and they are really very fragile people. Nice people, too. They don’t even care about money. You don’t believe me? Read Einhorn’s book. “I remember Grandpa Ben…,” Einhorn writes on page one, and after that he regales with countless folksy anecdotes and assorted other bullshit that – well, believe me, it brings tears to the eyes.
Einhorn even lets us know that he is going to donate some of the proceeds from his short selling of Allied to needy children. “I have been waiting,” he writes, “but the children should not have to wait.”
As far as I know, the children are still waiting. Although Einhorn has made enormous profits from his short selling of Allied, he has provided no evidence that his contributions to charity have significantly increased. But it is clear that the purpose of his book was not to tell the truth. It was to inoculate himself from public criticism and regulatory scrutiny in preparation for his next big project – the destruction of Lehman Brothers.
In May 2008, soon after releasing his book on Allied Capital, Einhorn’s launched his attack on Lehman in a speech that he gave at an event that was ostensibly held for the purposes of – what else? – raising money for needy children. Einhorn began this speech by discussing his supposedly philanthropic fight with Allied. He then proceeded to give a grossly exaggerated account of Lehman’s problems, suggesting that Lehman was a massive fraud for precisely the same reasons that Allied was a massive fraud – namely, that it had failed to mark down its real estate assets to “fair value,” with “fair value” defined not by any reasonable metric, but by Einhorn himself.
Lest there still be any doubt that Einhorn really was a crusading crime-fighter, rather than a profit-seeking hedge fund manager, he hired an expensive lobbying outfit called the Gordon Group to orchestrate an astounding public relations campaign. The Gordon Group, whose key clients seem to be Einhorn and Einhorn’s network of hedge fund managers (including the above mentioned William Ackman and Whitney Tilson) is staffed by real professionals. Their Einhorn campaign was marked by the sort of hype that normally accompanies the launch of a new teen-idol band.
But it wasn’t just hype. It was also a particularly greasy sort of deception – imagine a pimp marketing a cheap 42nd Street hooker. Really, she’s not in it for the money. She’ a virginal college undergrad who loves her teddy bear.
Well, the media swooned for the cuddly Einhorn. This was the same media that Einhorn had accused of bungling idiocy, but never mind that – now he had glowing profiles in many of the top news publications, and a three-hour appearance on CNBC. Half-way through his CNBC debut, Einhorn put on a cute t-shirt painted by his young kids — just to show that he was a regular guy and a lover of children, as opposed to a marauding hedge fund manager seeking to obliterate one of America’s largest investment banks.
In all his media interviews, Einhorn reminded journalists that Allied Capital had “intimidated” him. He said he had stood up to the bullies and proven that Allied was a massive fraud. Then he smoothly transitioned into a discussion of Lehman Brothers, suggesting to the journalists that Lehman was just like Allied, a massive fraud. He said Lehman was trying to “intimidate” him, but he would fight on in the name of truth and justice. The journalists swallowed this nonsense without an ounce of skepticism.
I do not mean to suggest that Lehman Brothers was a clean bank. Clearly, it engaged in some shady accounting, including its now notorious Repo 105 transactions. Its brokerage probably catered to criminal market manipulators. But while Lehman was a deeply troubled bank, it is also true that it was subjected to a wave of false rumors, each one accompanied by illegal naked short selling. With all the manipulation that accompanied the attack on Lehman, it was difficult to know what the truth about the company really was.
In the midst of the attack on Lehman, Adam Starr, the manager of hedge fund Gulfside Partners, was moved to write a letter to Lehman’s CFO, stating, “I have never witnessed more disruptive behavior than that displayed over the past year by David Einhorn.” In a recent interview with Reuters, Starr said that Lehman had clearly had serious problems, but that was besides the point. The point, Starr said, was that Einhorn was up to no good – “manipulating the market and running a high publicity business is just not appropriate behavior and disruptive to free and open markets.”
As for Einhorn being “right” about Lehman, it is important to note that the court-appointed examiner’s report on the Lehman bankruptcy does not support Einhorn’s principal claim – that Lehman’s executives fraudulently and massively overvalued the bank’s commercial real estate assets. “With respect to commercial real estate,” says the report, “the Examiner finds insufficient evidence to conclude that Lehman’s valuations of its Commercial portfolio were unreasonable as of the second and third quarters of 2008.”
Lehman’s valuations might have been high, but Einhorn’s shrill exaggerations and insinuations of fraud were clearly designed to induce panic. And sure enough, panic ensued. With potential business partners wondering whether Lehman was, in fact, massively overstating the value of its commercial real estate, the bank was unable to raise new capital.
To protect itself, Lehman sought to spin off the real estate assets, but by that time it had come under a brutal and criminal naked short selling attack, with more than 30 million of its shares failing to deliver. The plummeting stock price and continuing false rumors in the marketplace derailed Lehman’s other efforts to protect itself and triggered a run on the bank that ended with Lehman’s demise.
In short, Lehman was a bad bank. Regulators should have forced it to reform. Instead, they and the media allowed short selling “vigilantes” like Einhorn to manufacture a much bleaker reality and bring a major investment bank to its knees. It is quite possible that if it weren’t for Einhorn and other dissembling investor “activists”, Lehman would have survived, and the financial system would have had a much softer landing.
Lehman has subpoenaed records from Einhorn and his close colleague, Steve Cohen of SAC Capital, in hopes of determining the extent to which the hedge fund managers had a hand in its demise. Perhaps those subpoenas will give us a clearer picture of what really went down, but meanwhile we can expect Einhorn’s PR machine stay “on message” – constantly repeating that Einhorn was “right” about Lehman, just as Einhorn was “right” about Allied Capital.
Which brings us to the inspector general’s report on the SEC’s investigation of Allied. Given that Einhorn, his minion Jim Brickman, and the rest of his PR machine are waving this report with glee, and no doubt preparing to use it as cover for Einhorn’s next attack on a public company, it is important that we subject the contents of the report to close scrutiny.
The report concludes that “serious and credible allegations against Allied were not initially [my emphasis] investigated” by the SEC, but contrary to Einhorn’s ridiculous claims that nobody listened to him, the inspector general notes that the SEC did ultimately conduct “a lengthy examination of Allied as a result of Einhorn’s allegations…”
SEC officials met with Einhorn on multiple occasions to review his allegations. They also scoured through millions of Allied emails and the cart-loads of other documents that Allied supplied every time Einhorn came to the SEC with a new set of accusations.
Having conducted this gargantuan investigation, the SEC concluded that most of Einhorn’s allegations were bogus. Allied was fined for having mildly inadequate accounting methods that might have overvalued some of the company’s assets, but the SEC determined that Allied certainly was not the “massive fraud” that Einhorn claimed it to be.
In addition, Allied was not, as Einhorn claimed, a massive Ponzi scheme. Einhorn had made the smarmy suggestion that Allied was a Ponzi because it supposedly raised money from the markets to pay its dividends. An SEC official told the inspector general that this claim was patently false – it was perfectly obvious that Allied legitimately paid dividends out of earnings.
The inspector general’s report notes that one SEC official claimed to have gotten “push back” when she tried to dig deeper into the Ponzi scheme allegation. But nowhere in the report does the inspector general conclude that any such Ponzi scheme existed. Clearly, Einhorn is no Harry Markopolos. Markopolos uncovered a $50 billion fraud (that of Bernie Madoff). Einhorn blew the whistle on a crime that didn’t exist. Yet, Einhorn’s slithering PR effort never ceases to amaze – somehow he has managed to attach himself to Markopolos, and even wangled a deal to write the introduction to Markopolos’s blockbuster book.
The inspector general seems to believe that the investigation of Allied could have been more thorough in some respects. For example, SEC officials didn’t visit Allied’s offices, and one SEC official was a bit too quick to believe that Allied was innocent just because former SEC officials worked for the company. But, again, the inspector general does not state that the SEC was wrong to conclude that Allied was innocent of any major crime.
The inspector general’s most damaging conclusions about Allied concern the company’s efforts to lobby the SEC. Apparently, some Allied lobbyists secured an unusual meeting with SEC officials and managed to convince these officials that Allied deserved a lighter fine. It also appears that a former SEC official went to work as an Allied lobbyist and might have gotten his hands on Einhorn’s phone records.
The inspector general is right to suggest that Allied’s lobbyists crossed the line. It is not kosher for a public company to pry into a private citizen’s phone records. But given that Einhorn had all-but moved his offices into SEC headquarters, and given that Einhorn had his own private investigators going to unknown lengths to dig up “dirt” on Allied (he admits in his book that he hired Kroll, a private investigative agency that owes its existence to Michael Milken, who was its first big client), Allied can hardly be blamed for taking steps to defend itself.
In any case, the inspector general’s report is more an indictment of the SEC than of Allied’s lobbyists. The overall picture that emerges is one of a government agency split into two factions, one populated by friends of Allied’s lobbyists, the other populated by officials who were basically taking orders from hedge fund managers like David Einhorn. It seems that nobody at the SEC was capable of conducting an investigation without having his or her hand held by some self-interested party. But it is clear from this case and many others like it that the hedge fund faction won the day.
The inspector general states in his report that it was Allied’s lobbyists who convinced the SEC to investigate Einhorn. The report concludes that the SEC initiated this investigation “without any specific evidence of wrongdoing.” That might be so, but officials do not generally obtain “specific evidence” unless they seriously look for it. And it is clear from the contents of the inspector general’s report that the SEC’s investigation of Einhorn was an unmitigated joke, even though officials had good reason to suspect that Allied’s stock was being manipulated.
The report notes, for example, that the SEC subpoenaed Einhorn’s client list in response to Allied’s complaints and discovered that Einhorn had a certain “celebrity client”, whom the inspector general does not name. Could this “celebrity client” have been Michael Milken? We cannot know for certain, but it seems like a good guess, given that the discovery of this “celebrity client” followed Allied’s complaint to the SEC, and given that Allied had complained that Einhorn might be colluding (sorry, “sharing ideas”) with one specific celebrity – Michael Milken.
In any case, it appears from the inspector general’s report that the SEC did nothing to determine how Milken, who is banned from the securities industry, became “quite a large” shareholder of Allied’s stock. Nor did the SEC seek to determine what Milken was doing that day in Allied’s offices.
Meanwhile, some SEC officials seemed to believe that Einhorn was colluding with other hedge fund managers to drive down Allied’s stock. To see whether the hedge fund managers called each other and then placed their trades at precisely the same time, the SEC subpoenaed Einhorn’s phone records. But according to the inspector general’s report, Einhorn did not bother to comply with this subpoena. He never handed over the phone records, and nobody at the SEC seemed to notice or care. Which is funny, because Einhorn states in his book that he did hand over his phone records. Indeed, he goes to great lengths to describe how hurt he felt about this. The SEC was “intimidating” him.
Perhaps because it was weary of “intimidating” hedge fund managers, the SEC also apparently did nothing to investigate illegal naked short selling of Allied’s stock. From the moment that Einhorn declared that Allied was “going to zero”, and for many months afterwards, Allied’s stock “failed to deliver” in massive quantities – a sure sign of criminal naked short selling. We do not know that Einhorn, others in the Milken network, or their brokers were committing this crime. Maybe it was someone else. Either way, it was not beyond the pale for Allied to ask the SEC to investigate. Or maybe it was. After all, the SEC wouldn’t want to “intimidate” criminals.
It is also notable that literally minutes after Einhorn declared that Allied was “going to zero”, the corrupt law firm Milberg Weiss filed a class action lawsuit against Allied that almost precisely mimicked Einhorn’s allegations. Indeed, Milberg filed a class action lawsuit against nearly every company attacked by short sellers in the Milken network.
A couple of years ago, Milberg’s top partners went to jail after prosecutors determined that the partners routinely bribed the plaintiffs in such lawsuits and knew in advance that some event would collapse the stock prices of the companies named in the lawsuits. Einhorn claims that the timing and contents of Milberg’s lawsuit were coincidences. We’ll never know the truth because the SEC doesn’t want to “intimidate” short sellers and corrupt law firms.
There were other “coincidences”. For example, supposedly “independent” financial research shops, such as Off Wall Street Research and Farmhouse Equity Research, published reports that closely paralleled Einhorn’s negative analysis of Allied Capital. The Motley Fool reported in 2007 that Einhorn’s confederate Jim Brickman helped Farmhouse write its research on Allied, and received a copy of at least one of these research reports one week prior to its publication.
Brickman, who is a bit of a mystery character (he refused to provide me with any information about his background), told the Motley Fool that he and Einhorn didn’t see the advance copies of the reports because of “travel constraints.” Allied complained to the SEC that the research shops were helping Einhorn manipulate its stock price and illegally trade ahead of their research. Einhorn said Allied was trying to “intimidate” the research shops. Who was right? It was all so confusing. The deep thinkers at the SEC picked their noses and tried to figure it all out. Then they went to lunch.
The inspector general has been on a mission to expose ineptitude at the SEC, and for this he deserves praise and gratitude. However, given the facts, I think his report on the investigation of Allied Capital was a bit too kind to David Einhorn. The inspector general notes that his office “conducted a comprehensive investigation of the allegations in Einhorn’s book.” But the report offers no solid verdict as to the accuracy of those allegations, and fails to acknowledge the extent to which the SEC had been manipulated by Einhorn and affiliated Wall Street hedge funds.
It should be noted that not only the SEC, but also the Department of Justice, the Small Business Administration, federal courts, attorneys general, and other government bodies investigated Einhorn’s allegations against Allied. All of these investigations yielded the same conclusion: Einhorn’s allegations were, for the most part, eminently ridiculous.
The only criminal fraud discovered by any of these investigators was committed by executives of Business Loan Express, a subsidiary that represented a tiny fraction of Allied’s overall portfolio. The BLX executives were apparently handing out Allied’s money to unqualified borrowers who were their cronies. In other words, Allied was the victim of this fraud. That anyone at the SEC still gives credence to David Einhorn is, therefore, rather odd.
But this story has a happy ending. Last October, Allied Capital was purchased by Ares Capital Corporation, a company that was founded by Anthony Ressler and John Kissick – both partners in the private equity firm Apollo Management. The head of Apollo is none other than Leon Black, who is Michael Milken’s closest business crony. That could be a coincidence. Or it could be that Einhorn’s attack on Allied was meant from the beginning to drive down Allied’s stock price to the point where it would be ripe for a takeover by Milken’s pals.
In any case, Einhorn mysteriously ended his “crusade” agains Allied as soon as Allied was purchased by his friends. So, for the time being at least, we don’t have to listen to his blather. And we promise – never again will we “intimidate” Einhorn. Really, no more “intimidation” — not from us. Mr. Einhorn, you are noble man. You did it for the children. You did not deserve to be “intimidated.” And, Mr. Einhorn, one more thing — boo!
Oops, did it again.
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Click here to read the inspector general’s report