As will be explored in a subsequent piece, it would be fair to describe my relationship with Bethany McLean of Fortune as “strained”. However, it is not unusual for her to write or call me seeking comment, generally regarding spurious allegations fed her by crony hedge funds which she dutifully regurgitates on command, and sometimes regarding other things, too. I make it a point to respond promptly. On rare occasion when I have contacted her, she has responded promptly as well.
Thus I was a bit surprised at the turn taken by the following correspondence:
From: Patrick Byrne
Sent: Thursday, February 28, 2008 10:46 PM
To: Bethany Mclean
Subject: comment sought
For the record, do you have any comment on either of these stories?
From: Patrick Byrne
Sent: Friday, March 14, 2008 12:37 PM
To: Bethany Mclean
Subject: Three requests
1) I understand Roddy has become a co-worker at your fine magazine. I am not confident I have his correct email. Would you mind sending it to me (or ask him to do the same)?
2) I have posted a new piece about Michael Steinhardt (if I do say so myself, it’s frightfully good). Would you please provide comment it?
3) If you do not intend to provide comment on this or any of my stories, would you please let me know that? Any further explanation you would be willing to share in that regard would be much appreciated.
From: Patrick Byrne
Sent: Thursday, March 27, 2008 12:49 PM
To: ‘[email protected]’
Hello. I hope you are well. As you are perhaps aware, I am working on an article in which you will figure. I want to treat you justly and have your point of view represented fairly. Unfortunately, you have not called or written me back (though I have always been prompt in my responses to your inquiries, I believe). I do not wish to publish and have you feel slighted. Therefore, on the off-chance that the reticence of your reply stems from a fear that I will not quote you accurately, may I propose a solution? I would like to ask you two questions. If you will answer these questions, I will commit to using your answers in full, unedited (I propose an upper limit on the length of each reply: 50 words). Since this is far more generous a deal than I generally extract from the New York financial journalists of my acquaintance, surely it should ease any discomfit you may have in being the recipient, rather than the purveyor, of questions.
Hey, Patrick. The only communication I’ve received from you (apart from today’s email) was another email in which you asked me to comment on a piece you’d written on Michael Steinhardt. (I think.) You’re correct that I didn’t respond to that. My editor has asked that you speak to our PR people. You can contact Katy Reitz at [email protected]
From: Patrick Byrne [mailto:[email protected]] Sent: Friday, April 04, 2008 3:07 AM
To: Reitz, Katharine – Fortune/Money
Cc: McLean, Bethany – Fortune
Subject: RE: your email
Dear Ms. Reitz,
As you can see below, I am writing at the suggestion of Ms. Mclean regarding the possibility of her answering several on-the-record questions for a story I am writing. Is this something you would be willing to facilitate?
Patrick M. Byrne
Can you please email me the questions and I will see if Bethany is
available to answer. Also, please let me know what your deadline is and
what publication this interview will appear in. Thanks.
Katharine S. Reitz
Director of Communications
From: Patrick Byrne
Sent: Friday, April 04, 2008 1:11 PM
To: ‘[email protected]’
Subject: RE: your email
My questions for Bethany concern her state of knowledge at the time she wrote SGR regarding the investment track record of Jim Chanos prior to Enron (attached please find discussion of Jim Chanos in Bethany’s book on Enron; I can also provide Mr. Chanos partners’ letter if she needs).
What was Bethany’s understanding of that track record? Did she know what it was when she wrote SGR?
If she did not know, why not? Did she ask?
If she did know, does she believe her account on page 319 adequately summarizes it?
An answer within the next week would be deeply appreciated. You may assume that the first place her answer would be published would be within Overstock.com, or at DeepCapture.com.
Bethany is unavailable to comment.
From: Patrick Byrne
Sent: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 11:50 AM
To: [email protected]
Subject: RE: your email
Thank you for your kind response. I can wait, as it turns out, given the collapse of Bear and some subsequent comments made last week in the Senate, my publication schedule has changed. When would she be available for comment?
I received no further reply, no elucidation of when Bethany would no longer be “unavailable for comment.”
However, this evening, just as I was preparing to leave work, I checked my email, and found this. Since it was sent at a quarter to 1 PM East Coast time, and Bethany gave me to “the end of the day” (which came four hours later for her), the time to respond has elapsed, obviously. And since Bethany neglected to call my office, cell, or assistant, though these are all numbers she has and has called in the past, I was not aware of her email until this evening.
From: Bethany McLean [mailto:[email protected]] Sent: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 10:43 AM
To: Patrick Byrne
Subject: Fact checking question
Hi, Patrick –
I’m doing a short book review of a new book by a hedge fund manager named
David Einhorn. The book isn’t about you, and nor is the review. But
Einhorn does write about your August 2005 conference call because you
mentioned both him and his wife on it. You also made some statements about
his business. Einhorn says you were factually inaccurate about both his
business and his relationships. You also made some unsubstantiated and very
negative allegations about his wife. Do you want to comment on this at all?
The column is shipping off at the end of the day, so please let me know.
I’m new to this reporting gig, so I have to ask: Is that odd? Is it odd that for weeks Bethany would not be “available” to answer two simple questions such as the ones I posed her (even given the generous terms I offered regarding the timing of her reply and the use of her quote), but then would be available to describe vaguely some criticisms David Einhorn has made about me, and ask for my comment by end-of-day? Is this asymmetry of responsiveness, time, and use of quotes, odd?
What makes these people feel so threatened by a level playing field?
Given that I just sat down at my email I have evidently missed Ms. McLean’s timetable: besides, given the vagueness of her description, it is hard to know what a reasonable reply would look like (beyond noting that it is not clear if David Einhorn is saying my allegations about his wife were false, or rather, simply that he felt they were unsubstantiated and negative). But Bethany does raise interesting points with which the reader should become familiar.
David Einhorn’s wife is Cheryl Strauss-Einhorn, who is, or was, an editor at Barron’s. It’s fair to say that Cheryl Strauss Einhorn’s favored sources over the years have been the short-selling friends of her boyfriend/husband. As a couple, they illustrate the intersection of money management and compliant journalism whose description is Deep Capture’s mission.
By way of example, here is Cheryl writing on Jim Chanos (yes, this is the same Jim Chanos mention above, the one about whom Bethany wrote a book-length lotion-job, about which she is now refusing to answer two simple questions). Note also Cheryl’s mention of David Rocker. Importantly, Cheryl notes (as if it’s all kosher) that most “bear” short interest (as opposed to arbitrage) is actually naked shorting (by the way, that is the same “naked short selling” which the New York financial press has spent the last three years denying exists).
Anyway, here are excerpts from this fine example of Cheryl’s work:
Short Fuses: Romping Dow leaves professional bears Bloodied; is this the sign of a market top?
By Cheryl Strauss Einhorn
17 July 1995
(Copyright (c) 1995, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) ….
“As the stock market charges ever higher, pros are increasingly asked if short selling continues to make sense as an investment discipline,” laments Jim Chanos, head of Kynikos Associates in New York and a dean of the short-selling community. “The frustrating thing has been trying to nail down just what has changed in the market such that it hasn’t had a 10% correction since 1990. Is it a new era? We are questioning the discipline as a whole, wondering if the short side of the market will ever work again.”
Well, it worked last year — for Chanos, at least. Even as other shortsellers were having problems, Chanos’s flagship Ursus Partners reaped a hefty 46.2% return, while the S&P 500 Index was up 1.3%. So far this year, though, Chanos has lost more than 20%, bringing his assets under management to $200 million, down from $250 million on Jan. 1. In recent weeks there have been rumors swirling that Chanos was giving up the shorting game, rumors that he denies vigorously. “It just isn’t true,” he says.
Chanos recently received another large chunk of money to manage on behalf of a wealthy New York family, and as he puts it, “It is our intention to remain fully invested.”
“Besides this one client, though, no one else is stepping up and saying, `Now is the time to give money to a short fund,'” Chanos concedes. “But if not now, when? Valuations are crazy and the public is in the market with both feet.”
Between now and the stock market’s eventual downfall, Chanos expects to see “a lot of shorts throw in the towel.” And a lot already have. By one calculation, assets in funds dedicated to shorting stocks have shrunk to somewhere between $600 million and $800 million in total, down from a peak of $3.5 billion in 1990. Put another way, it’s less than 1% of the $6 trillion that comprises today’s equity market capitalization.
There was also talk in the market last week that David Rocker, head of the hedge fund Rocker Partners LP, was thinking about giving up his penchant for going short. Rocker conceded that it’s been a tough year, but he says he remains net short because he believes the market is highly overvalued. With folks like Chanos and Rocker so demoralized, it’s easy to understand why short interest has slipped in such highflying stocks as Boston Chicken and Electronic Arts. Despite all the shorting in months past, these stocks just keep climbing. In fact, Boston Chicken’s short interest fell 17% between May 15 and June 15, and Electronic Arts’ fell 10% during the same period.
Nonetheless, overall short open interest on the New York Stock Exchange rose 3% in the month ended June 15, while short interest in the Nasdaq National Market was about flat. It’s important to note, though, that these numbers do not discriminate between naked short positions, taken by outright bears, and short positions that are part of arbitrage activity, such as a fund buying S&P futures while shorting the underlying stocks.
Short-sellers have been further hurt by a Nasdaq rule put into effect in September 1994 that prohibits shorting a stock on a downtick. “The brutal reality of the short-selling business is that one has to be there before the bad news hits,” says Chanos.
Still, Chanos continues to be drawn like a magnet to segments of the market he sees as most overvalued. Technology stocks, he wrote in a recent letter to investors, “increasingly look like a bubble, with many questionable companies receiving ludicrous valuations. Institutional investors are now horribly overweighted in this sector and most have the view that nothing can go wrong.”
….— Still Flying High
A more remarkable example of Cheryl’s work can be found in her October, 2000 article regarding the “uptick rule”. As I discussed in my essay “Jim Cramer is a Complicated Man“, this is a rule that were implemented in the 1930’s to curtail the ability of stock manipulators to destroy companies. According to someone who worked for him, Jim Cramer flouted this while managing money at Cramer Berkowitz. The rule was repealed in the summer of 2007. Recently Cramer has been on TV explaining (correctly if insincerely) how the repeal of this rule is a disaster for our markets, allowed hedge funds to steal from hard-working Americans, and perhaps contributed to the implosion of Bear Stearns.
So it is instructive to see in retrospect how Cheryl analyzes this rule.
Cheryl’s article begins with the nice neutral title, “SEC may drop biased trading restrictions”, then goes downhill from there. I will make bold those sentences that represent the point of view of those who think that hedge funds should not be encumbered by the uptick rule. I will italicize those that represent the point of view who think the uptick rule a necessary check on the powers of stock manipulators. I will leave untouched any sentences that are simply factual, about which neither side would disagree.
Clock Ticks For Short-Sale Rule- SEC may drop biased trading restrictions
By CHERYL STRAUSS EINHORN (Barrons, 10/2/00)
The SEC is considering dropping its restrictions on short sales of securities. The rules were implemented in 1938 to prevent stock manipulators from driving down share prices through short-selling. Proponents of the so-called short-sale rules have long maintained they are needed to help promote stock-market stability. But detractors consider the regulations outmoded in today’s increasingly transparent market. Besides, they point out, no precautions have ever been legislated to rein in manipulators seeking to drive up prices through similar means.
Although the SEC has put out a concept release seeking comment on the restrictions from securities-industry participants, Annette Nazareth, head of the market regulation division, acknowledges the whole subject is up for grabs. “Personally, I can find no economic basis for the short-sale rule,” she says.
Short-sellers hope to profit by selling borrowed shares that they can buy back later at lower prices. Under current restrictions, stocks can be shorted only on an uptick — that is, at a price above the preceding trade.
While the short-sale rule has remained fundamentally unchanged for the past 62 years, financial markets have changed radically since the 1930s. For openers, there has been substantial improvement in market surveillance. And as the volume, velocity and complexity of trading escalate, restrictions on short-selling “may inject unnecessary inefficiencies” into the market, Nazareth says.
John Damgard, president of the Futures Industry Association, agrees. “It makes no sense to prejudice a sale up or down,” he says.
The uptick requirement, he adds, just serves “to make people feel warm and fuzzy, because they like things to go up.”
Short-sellers, on the other hand, make other investors feel neither warm nor fuzzy. Through the years they have often been tarred as naysayers, doomsdayers and all-around troublemakers who love to gloat when the market tumbles. Yet there is little data linking their activities to price movements in the securities markets.
Dan Loeb, a New York hedge-fund manager, would like to see the uptick restriction abolished because it increases the difficulty of implementing short sales. Besides, he notes, “Shortsellers provide a service to the market by increasing liquidity and providing a cap on speculative stocks.” While the evidence in recent years suggests the last is merely wishful thinking, in fact short-sellers’ skepticism sometimes does inject a sorely lacking dose of reality into phantasmic situations.
Many institutions use short selling as a hedging tool, to protect their stock and bond portfolios from market declines. Gains in such short positions theoretically will offset any declines in the value of the firm’s portfolio.
Not all market participants want to do away with the short-sale rule, however. Major brokerages such as Merrill Lynch are conflicted about the shortsale regulations. While trading desks consider the rules excessively cumbersome, investment bankers and brokers believe the restrictions will protect their clients’ shares from potential “death spirals,” in which stocks are hammered by repeated waves of selling.
The SEC, according to its concept release, is considering eight different measures regarding short-sale regulations. In addition to outright elimination, these include suspending the short-sale rule when a stock or the market rises above a certain price threshold; providing exceptions for actively traded securities; focusing shortsale restrictions on certain corporate events, such as mergers, or trading strategies, such as options expirations; exempting hedging transactions and revising the definition of “short sale.”
The commission, which has received many complaints about short-sale abuses in the over-the-counter market, also is exploring whether to extend the rule to non-exchange-listed securities.
The short-sale issue is timely in part because Congress this week is expected to pass legislation lifting the 1982 ban on trading stock (as opposed to stockindex) futures. With trading volume in bond and currency futures down 10% this year, the futures business would welcome the opportunity to move into the equity market. Global competition, too, is propelling the issue forward. Beginning in January, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange plans to begin trading futures on a handful of U.S. stocks, including AT&T, Cisco Systems, Citigroup, Exxon Mobil and Merck.
Ironically, if the ban on stock futures is lifted, the short-sale rule could become moot. Not only are there no ticks in futures, but also short-sellers would not have to borrow shares to short them. Thus, they wouldn’t face having their shares “bought in,” which is what happens in a short squeeze, a form of market manipulation. Investors then would be able to sell futures on stocks without cumbersome restrictions or regulatory bias.
That sure looks like thoughtful, unbiased analysis to me. Please keep in mind that the elimination of this “regulatory bias (sic)” in 2007 is now being brought up in US Senate hearings (as well as by Jim Cramer) as contributing to the take-down of Bear Stearns and the current market crisis in general. Also, note that Annette “Personally, I can find no economic basis for the short-sale rule” Nazareth is a lawyer, not an economist, and is one of the two SEC commissioners who stepped down within days of the publication of the Senate investigation into the whistle-blowing claims of SEC Senior Investigator Gary Aguirre, as is described by my piece on the regulatory capture of the SEC. She is also the person to whom I was referring when I wrote, “who, as we shall see later, is via marriage directly linked to the issue whose exposure is the ultimate purpose of this blog: unsettled trades in our settlement system.” But these are stories for another day.
These two articles demonstrate my point, I believe: writing articles favorable to one’s husband and his friends is a pretty clear conflict of interest. Call me madcap.
In August 2005 I mentioned Cheryl’s work in the Miscreants Ball conference call. The only objections I ever received were claims that she was no longer, in fact, employed at Barron’s. To these objections I simply sent people a link to the Barron’s masthead, which on that day did (and for all I know, still does) list her as an editor. No other inaccuracies were ever reported to me.
About six months later, Mark Mitchell from the Columbia Journalism Review began asking questions about Cheryl Strauss. According to him, her stories literally began disappearing from the Barron’s database within days. That is a good indication of how proud they were of the work of Cheryl Einhorn, née Cheryl Strauss.
In late 2005 I had lunch with Bethany. I mentioned that I had recently been shown the trading records of David Einhorn, and while Overstock was not among his positions, there were other statistical anomalies of note. It was the only time I saw her flinch.
In the summer of 2006 I had lunch with Whitney Tilson, a paymeister of convicted felon Barry Minkow (according to a deposition Barry gave). Whitney invited me to address a group of hedge funds at that year’s Value Investor Congress, which he organized. Whitney’s friend David Einhorn protested my appearance to Whitney, whereupon Whitney rescinded his invitation to me. (One year later a different conference organizer, Brett Goetschius of “The Pipes Report” gave me a similar invitation to address 800 hedge funds. I told him I could accept his invitation, but that he would just have to rescind his invitation later. He replied, “No no, in the last year the whole community has changed: at least 50-60% of hedge funds are now on your side.” I went and gave the talk and received a nice ovation: the recording of this became the body of Deep Capture: The Movie.)
Last year Bethany devoted some serious effort to trying to prove that I was collaborating in a vast secret scheme with someone. Unfortunately for her case, I had never met my supposed collaborator.
But Bethany is nothing if not persistent. Some weeks ago Bethany visited a hedge fund for an interview. According to them, she regurgitated the criticisms of one obscure analyst who was trashing a firm in which they had invested, criticisms they were immediately able to dispel, with documentation (including a recent FDA approval about which she was unaware). She got visibly irritated, then brought up my name. When they told her that they thought I was right about compliant journalists being spoon-fed stories by select hedge funds, she got very irritated, and left somewhat abruptly, they say.
If only there were a pattern….
Your humble servant,
PS Bethany, if you know any of the specifics of David Einhorn’s allegations of error on my part, please let me know. Deep Capture is in the final stages of preparing a major piece, and would not want to repeat being “factually inaccurate about both [Einhorn’s] business and his relationships.” Since you are writing a column about his book, you probably are familiar with the substance of his claims (of course, most reporters would have actually given some clearer indication of his claims when asking for my comment on them, beyond saying he thought I was “factually inaccurate”). In any case, out of an abundance of caution, please let me know of any specifics about which you or David Einhorn believe I was in error, so that such error would not be replicated in the coming piece. We journalists have our standards, of course.
PPS To the casual reader: have any of you noticed that, for all that these journalists like to write about me and how improbable are my claims, none of them mentions DeepCapture.com? The Wall Street Journal once practiced a remarkable circumlocution in order to avoid mentioning where to find my blogs. It is almost as if…. they fear their own writing will not stand up on its own. What do you bet Bethany’s upcoming column avoids mentioning it as well?