Make no mistake: what you witnessed this week was not some natural process – an economy “souring,” a bubble “bursting.” This was not the “invisible hand” at work. This was not even capitalism.
This was the premeditated, systematic destruction of market value by an elite crowd of Wall Street cronies who no doubt cackled with delight in the cleverness of their mischief-making. This was criminal behavior on an ungodly scale – the unprecedented looting of America.
Do you think I’m overstating this? Consider that the hedge funds who did this employed precisely the same tactics that precipitated the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
One of these tactics, as almost everybody now finally realizes, is called “naked short selling.” It involves hedge funds and their brokers selling stock that they do not possess – phantom stock – to dilute supply and drive down prices.
Often, the short-selling saboteurs engage in other shenanigans – whispering scurrilous rumors, oozing innuendo, orchestrating bogus class action lawsuits, deploying armies of Internet message boards to foment negativity, paying seedy “independent” financial research shops to publish distorted analysis, hiring thugs to harass executives and their families, conducting corporate espionage, and instructing government cronies to launch dead-end investigations.
You never heard about this from the mainstream financial media. You never heard it because the market saboteurs were writing the media’s talking points. Some reporters were merely addicts, dependent on the dealers of distortion for negative stories. Other reporters were genuinely corrupt. They thought the market machinations were good fun. “I wanna play, too,” they said. They reveled in taking down companies, and then they asked their short-selling accomplices for jobs.
Our nation’s most influential financial journalists knew that naked short selling was rife. They knew that hundreds of companies had been victimized. They had all the data and they had every reason to believe that billions of phantom shares floating around the system could not be good. But they said naked short selling never happens. They said only bad CEOs and crazy people complain about short seller crimes. They whitewashed the biggest scandal of our lifetimes, and then our markets crumbled.
It was the darkest moment in the history of American journalism.
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In July, the SEC issued an “emergency order” to prevent naked short selling from destroying the financial system. The order required short sellers of stock in 19 financial companies to actually obtain real stock before selling it.
This was hardly intrusive, but the media, copying straight from the hedge fund lobby’s script, said that the SEC should leave the short sellers alone. The emergency order had hurt “market efficiency,” the journalists wrote, though common sense would suggest that a market cannot efficiently set prices when it is bloated by phantom supply. The emergency order decreased “liquidity,” the reporters wrote, though they provided no credible data to support this claim, and failed to explain how a liquid market in phantom stock benefits anyone other than a few hedge fund billionaires.
Even worse, some reporters argued that the SEC should not crack down on naked short selling because short sellers are “vital” sources of negative information to the media. What if some of these “vital” sources are manipulating markets? Criminals, apparently, are untouchable, so long as they dish dirt to reporters. The abomination riles all the more when you know (as I do, having studied thousands of these dirt-strewn stories) that the majority of them contain insinuation, omissions, and outright falsehoods.
At any rate, the financial media convinced the SEC to let its emergency order expire. Even as the markets nosedived, journalists, including CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino, were calling the emergency order “ridiculous,” and the SEC cowered. Within a few weeks Lehman Brothers was gone, Merrill Lynch was gone, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were nationalized, and American International Group, a company with a trillion dollars in assets, was trading for a dollar a share and soliciting handouts from the Fed.
On Wednesday of this week, the SEC rushed out new rules that purported “zero tolerance” for naked short selling. According to the SEC, there would now be a “hard” close out rule, requiring hedge funds to deliver real stock within three days of selling it.
Even if the SEC were to enforce a three day settlement, it wouldn’t do much, because the manipulators work like this: A hedge fund tells his broker to sell a million shares of XYZ. The broker doesn’t have any shares, but he sells them anyway. That is phantom stock and for three days it dilutes supply, and eats away at the financial system. When settlement day comes, the broker asks a second broker to sell him a million shares of XYX. The second broker doesn’t have any shares, but he sells a million shares of XYZ (the price now much lower) to the first broker, who uses the phantom stock to settle his initial sale of phantom stock.
When the second broker has to settle, he calls the first broker…and the phantom stock shuffle continues until the falling price makes it impossible for the company to raise capital. Then it’s bankruptcy, the stock is zero, and nobody has to deliver anything.
In any case, “Oooh, weee…‘zero tolerance.’ Really scary.” For years, hedge funds have habitually violated stock delivery requirements, and the SEC has done nothing. Big words didn’t scare anybody. When the SEC announced its new rules, the hedge fund lobby cheered, the media reported the cheers, and the manipulators went hog wild.
By Thursday afternoon, it was looking like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and countless smaller banks were on death row. Call this “liquidity.” Call it “market efficiency.” Call it what you like, but it wasn’t good. The meltdown was so severe that traders on Wall Street genuinely believed that Al Queda was taking down the financial system.
More likely, it was the small clique of terrorist hedge fund managers who are most beloved by our financial media. Alas, the SEC panicked. To forestall the end of the world, it decided on Thursday night to ban all short selling of stocks in 700-plus financial companies.
It is a shame that it had to come to that. Short-selling is a legitimate practice, and lots of people do it the legal way. Proper short selling probably keeps the markets honest. If the SEC had cracked down on illegal short selling long ago, the cataclysm would have been averted.
At any rate, maybe now would be a good time for the media to take a closer look at the naked short selling scandal. Stephen Moore, who works for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, said on CNBC that naked short selling caused this week’s turmoil. Why has the Journal not published an editorial expressing outrage?
The Journal’s editorial page, the finest in the country, rightly abhors government interventions, but this is not about free markets. It is about preserving property rights – the basic capitalist tenet that people must own what they sell. It is about stopping criminals.
Aside from the Journal’s editorial page, there is a world of media that has not been compromised by short sellers – a world of good reporters who live far from Wall Street and could be covering this scandal from multiple angles. They need to do so quickly. The SEC will lift its current ban. And if it doesn’t start prosecuting people – if we don’t get a permanent, market-wide, and properly enforced rule requiring short sellers to pre-borrow real stock – then it will once again be open season for hedge fund terrorism, and where our towering financial system once stood, there will be nothing but a gaping, smoldering hole.