“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”
That’s the motto of the Government Accountability Office, and it almost makes you believe that there really is a functioning watchdog – somebody, aside from us Internet loons, to investigate and report on the incompetence and malfeasance that pervade our public institutions.
Certainly, there were high hopes when the GAO began investigating the Securities and Exchange Commission’s oversight of the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC), a black box Wall Street outfit that is at the center of one of the great financial scandals of our era.
Alas, the GAO has completed its “investigation” and issued a report on its findings. After reading this report, and considering once again that the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) is the last line of defense against government miscreancy, I have concluded, and am obliged to inform you, that we are, without a shadow of a doubt, totally screwed.
The report begins with an explanation: “An effective clearance and settlement process is vital to the functioning of equities markets. When investors agree to trade an equity security, the purchaser promises to deliver cash to the seller and the seller promises to deliver the security to the purchaser. The process by which the seller receives payment and the buyer, the securities, is known as clearance and settlement.”
In other words, people who sell stock need to deliver real stock. That’s kind of important to the“functioning of equities markets.” If you think it is strange that the GAO ( “Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) needs to clarify this point, you can begin to understand the scope of a scandal that has helped bring us to the brink of a second Great Depression.
The problem is that many hedge funds and brokers engage in illegal naked short selling – selling stock and other securities that they have not yet borrowed or purchased, and failing to deliver stock within the allotted 3 days. They do this to drive down stock prices and destroy public companies for profit.
Emmy Award-winning journalist Gary Matsumoto reported on the Bloomberg newswire last week that naked short selling is one of Wall Street’s “darkest arts” and contributed to the demise of both Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. SEC data shows that an astounding 32.8 million shares of Lehman were sold and not delivered to buyers as of last September 11, days before the company declared bankruptcy.
The collapse of Lehman, of course, triggered the near-total implosion of our financial system.
How could this have been allowed to happen?
One answer lies within that black box – the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation. The DTCC is a quasi-private, Wall Street owned and operated organization that is charged by Congress and the SEC with ensuring that securities trades are cleared and settled. As is evident from the cases of Lehman, Bear, and hundreds of other companies, however, the DTCC often fails to do its job.
In fact, it enables naked short selling to go unpunished. Rather than track individual trades to ensure that delivery occurs, the DTCC merely calculates a net total of sales and purchases at the end of each day. So we know how many shares of a given company fail to deliver each day, but the DTCC won’t tell us which hedge funds or brokers are responsible.
Meanwhile, the DTCC maintains something called the “Stock Borrow Program,” whereby it purportedly borrows a bundle of shares from cooperating brokers and uses the shares to settle failed trades. These shares are not on deposit with the DTCC, and the DTCC records a trade as “settled” with a mere electronic entry — i.e. by pushing a button on a computer rather than exchanging an actual certificate. So it is unclear that the Stock Borrow Program is actually delivering stock. Moreover, trade volume data suggests that the Stock Borrow Program might be using its bundle over and over again, settling multiple trades with the same “shares,” and generating what is, in effect, massive amounts of counterfeit, or “phantom” stock.
While enabling hedge funds and brokers to engage in their dark art, the DTCC also goes to lengths to deny that illegal naked short selling occurs and to smear the reputations of people who say otherwise. It has orchestrated this vicious public relations campaign in cahoots with a crooked Portfolio magazine reporter named Gary Weiss, who has worked closely with a motley cast of Mafia-connected hedge fund managers and convicted criminals.
There is indisputable evidence showing that Weiss, while posing as a journalist, not only worked inside the DTCC’s offices, but also went so far as to seize total control of the Wikipedia entries on “naked short selling” and “Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation.” Yet, to this day, Weiss flat-out denies that he has ever worked with the DTCC and insists that he has never edited any Wikipedia page, much less the fabulously distorted entries dealing with naked short selling.
That the DTCC facilitates and seeks to cover up naked short selling is not surprising given that it is owned by the very brokerages who profit from catering to hedge funds who commit the crime. The DTCC’s board of directors has included several market makers – including Peter Madoff, brother of Bernard Madoff, the $50 billion Ponzi schemer with ties to the Mafia — who made a tidy profit from naked short selling.
At any rate, the SEC is responsible for overseeing the DTCC and ensuring that it is doing all it can to enforce delivery of shares and other securities. But the SEC conducts examinations of the DTCC only once every two years, and former SEC officials have admitted to Deep Capture that these visits entail nothing more than “investigators” asking a few courteous questions. Indeed, a number of former SEC officials have told us that the nation’s securities regulator doesn’t even understand what the DTCC does.
Enter the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”). Ostensibly, the GAO was going to determine whether the SEC was properly monitoring the DTCC. However, the GAO’s “investigation” entailed nothing more than visiting the SEC and asking a few courteous questions. In response, the SEC told the GAO that there is nothing to worry about, and the GAO duly issued a report that concluded that the SEC had told the GAO there is nothing to worry about.
Really, that, in essence, is what the report says.
It notes, for example, that the SEC examines the DTCC only once every two years, but offers no opinion as to whether this is sufficient oversight of an organization that processes securities transactions worth $1.4 quadrillion – or 30 times the gross product of the entire planet – every year.
And here’s what the report has to say about the DTCC’s Stock Borrow Program:
“…in response to media criticism and allegations made by certain issuers and shareholders that NSCC and DTC [units of the DTCC] were facilitating naked short selling through the operation of the Stock Borrow Program, OCIE [a unit of the SEC] also incorporated a review of this program into the scope of its 2005 examination. These critics argued that the Stock Borrow Program exacerbated naked short selling by creating and lending shares that are not actually deposited at the DTC, thereby, flooding the market with shares that do not exist. As part of their review, OCIE examiners tested transactions in securities that were the subject of the above referenced allegations or had high levels of prolonged FTD. The examination did not find any instances where critics’ claims were validated. However, we did not validate OCIE’s findings.” [Emphasis mine]
In other words, the SEC claims to have examined the Stock Borrow Program once – in 2005 — but the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) has no idea what that examination entailed. The SEC claims to have “tested transactions” in securities that had “high levels of prolonged” failures to deliver, but offered the GAO no credible explanation as to why so many companies have seen millions of their shares go undelivered nearly every day since 2005.
The SEC says it looked into the “critics’ claims” and found them to be without merit. The GAO duly notes this as if what the SEC has to say were the final say in the matter. As to whether the SEC’s own claims might have been without merit, the GAO says only that it “did not validate” the SEC’s findings.
Isn’t the job of the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) to “validate” – or, as it were, invalidate – the SEC’s findings? It is not exactly an “investigation” to merely ask the SEC what it has to say and then publish a report confirming that that is, in fact, what the SEC had to say.
Last year, more than 70% of all failures to deliver were concentrated on a select 100 companies that short sellers had also targeted in other ways (planting false media stories, issuing false financial research, filing bogus class action lawsuits, harassing and threatening executives, engaging in corporate espionage, circulating false rumors, pulling strings to get dead-end federal investigations launched, etc.), but the SEC told the GAO that the failures to deliver could be mostly the result of “processing delays” or “mechanical errors.”
Billions of undelivered shares – most of them concentrated on 100 known targets of specific short sellers. Many of those shares left undelivered for months at a time. The SEC tells the GAO that this might be due to “mechanical errors.” And what does the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) do? It transcribes the SEC’s claims, offers no opinion as to whether the SEC might be full of it, and then acknowledges that it is in no position to have such opinions because it “did not validate” anything.
In a written response to the GAO, the SEC noted happily that the GAO (“Accountability – Integrity – Reliability”) “made no recommendations” in its report.
“We appreciate the courtesy you and your staff extended to us during this review,” the SEC told the GAO.
* * * * * * * *
Far better is a report issued last week by the Office of the Inspector General at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Inspector General David Kotz, charged with conducting independent oversight of the SEC, is a heroic figure – an honest man in government. He has consistently lambasted the SEC for corruption and incompetence, and now he has investigated the SEC’s regulation of naked short selling. He found the regulation to be fairly abysmal and offered concrete recommendations for how the commission could reform itself.
The report concludes:
“The OIG received numerous complaints alleging that [SEC] Enforcement failed to take sufficient action regarding naked short selling. Many of these complaints asserted that investors and companies lost billions of dollars because Enforcement has not taken sufficient action against naked short selling practices.”
“Our audit disclosed that despite the tremendous amount of attention the practice of naked short selling has generated in recent years, Enforcement has brought very few enforcement actions based on conduct involving abusive or manipulative naked short selling…during the period of our review we found that few naked short selling complaints were forwarded to Headquarters or Regional Office Enforcement staff for further investigation…”
“Given the heightened public and Commission focus on naked short selling and guidance provided to the public leading them to believe these complaints will be taken seriously and appropriately evaluated, we believe the ECC’s current policies and procedures should be improved to ensure that naked short selling complaints are addressed appropriately.”
As for the SEC’s claims that naked short selling isn’t really a problem, or that failures to deliver could be the result of “mechanical error,” the OIG nicely contrasts this blather with the SEC’s own decision last fall to take “emergency” action against naked short selling (because naked short sellers were contributing to the toppling of the American financial system) and the SEC’s statement that “we have been concerned about ‘naked’ short selling and, in particular, abusive ‘naked’ short selling, for some time.”
In response to the OIG’s rightfully scathing report, the SEC wrote a letter in which it flatly refused to abide by most of the OIG’s recommendations.
The SEC did not thank the OIG for its “courtesy.”
* * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, that other watchdog – the media – continues to ignore the problem of naked short selling. After Gary Matsumoto’s rather earth-rattling Bloomberg report that naked short selling destroyed Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers – and, by extension, destabilized the entire financial system – there were a total of two mainstream media stories on the subject.
The first was in Portfolio magazine. Actually, this wasn’t really a story. It was one of those question and answer things. And the Q&A was not with some credible expert. Instead, a Portfolio magazine reporter interviewed another Portfolio magazine reporter about the Bloomberg reporter’s story. Even more shocking to those who believe there is hope for balanced media coverage of this issue, the interviewee was none other than… Gary Weiss, the crooked reporter who sidelines as a flak for the DTCC.
Weiss, of course, smeared the messenger, suggesting that Matsumoto was a “conspiracy theorist.” He cited no data or evidence, but repeated the SEC and DTCC nonsense that failures to deliver might be caused by mechanical errors (which just happen to show up overwhelmingly concentrated in those firms targeted by the hedge funds who serve as Gary Weiss’s sources). And he asserted that naked short selling isn’t a problem because the SEC says that naked short selling isn’t a problem (except when the SEC says that naked short selling is an “emergency”).
Read the full interview here. You’ll get a sense of the way Weiss deliberately employs straw man arguments to distort the truth, though as an example of Weiss’s dishonesty, this is rather mild.
* * * * * * * *
The other magazine to report on the Bloomberg bombshell was the Columbia Journalism Review, which is the most prominent watchdog of the watchdogs – an outlet for serious media criticism. As Deep Capture‘s regular readers know, I used to work as an editor for the Columbia Journalism Review. I spent ten months preparing a story for that publication about dishonest journalists (including Gary Weiss) who were deliberately covering up the naked short selling scandal.
In the course of working on this story, I was threatened and, on one occasion, punched in the face. Then, in November 2006, shortly before the story was to be published, a short selling hedge fund that I was investigating announced that it would henceforth be providing the Columbia Journalism Review with the funding that would be used specifically to pay my salary.
The hedge fund that bribed the Columbia Journalism Review is called Kingsford Capital. It has worked closely with criminals, including a thug named Spyro Contogouris. In November 2006, a couple weeks after Kingsford bribed the Columbia Journalism Review, an FBI agent arrested Spyro. This was the same FBI agent who was investigating a cabal of short sellers – SAC Capital, Kynikos Associates, the former Rocker Partners, Third Point Capital, Exis Capital — who were then working with Spyro to attack a company called Fairfax Financial.
Spyro had harassed and threatened Fairfax executives, so he was going to feature prominently in my story. The centerpiece of my story, however, was to be that cabal of short sellers, not only because the Fairfax case was quite shocking, but also because these short sellers and a few others were the primary sources to dishonest journalists (especially MarketWatch reporter Herb Greenberg and CNBC personality Jim Cramer) who were then whitewashing the naked short selling scandal. Moreover, nearly every company known to have been targeted by these short sellers had been victimized by naked short selling, with millions of shares going undelivered, often for months at a time.
Emails in my possession show that Kingsford Capital is closely connected to that cabal of short sellers. Moreover, one of Kingsford’s managers at the time, Cory Johnson, was, along with Herb Greenberg and Jim Cramer (the journalists who were going to feature most prominently in my story) a founding editor of TheStreet.com. (Johnson removed Kingsford from his online resume after I revealed the relationship in “The Story of Deep Capture.”).
For a number of years, Kingsford Capital was partnered with Manuel Asensio, who was one of the most notorious naked short sellers on the Street. Prior to his work with Kingsford, Asensio worked for First Hanover, a Mafia-affiliated brokerage whose owner later became a homeless crack addict.
I was investigating Kingsford and Asensio primarily because they appeared to be among the favorite sources of Gary Weiss, the crooked journalist who was then secretly doubling as a flak for the black box DTCC. Asensio, for example, helped Weiss write “The Mob on Wall Street,” a 1995 BusinessWeek story that was all about the Mafia’s infiltration of Wall Street stock brokerages, but which deliberately omitted reference to Mafia-connected naked short sellers, even though the brokerage that featured most prominently in the story, Hanover Sterling, was at the center of one of the biggest naked short selling fiascos in Wall Street history.
According to someone who knows Weiss well, Asensio was also a source for a Weiss story about the gangland-style murder of two stock brokers, Al Chalem and Meier Lehmann. Chalem was tied to the Mafia and specialized in naked short selling. Multiple sources say that Russian mobsters killed Chalem in a dispute over the naked short selling of stocks that were manipulated by brokerages connected to the Russians and the Genovese organized crime family.
One of these sources – a man who worked closely with Chalem – says that he tried to tell Weiss the true story, but Weiss refused to listen to anybody who would pin the murders on the Russian Mob or accuse Chalem of naked short selling. Instead, Weiss wrote a false story describing Chalem as a “stock promoter” and suggesting that he had been killed by people tied to the Gambino crime family, which was then a fierce rival of the Genovese and the Russians.
On another occasion, the current principals of Kingsford Capital sent Weiss a fax containing false negative information about a company called Hemispherx Biopharma. Another source, who was sitting in Weiss’s office at the time, says that he tried to tell the reporter that Kingsford was working with Asensio, that Asensio might have ties to the Mob, and that Asensio was naked short selling Hemispherx stock. Weiss ignored this information and wrote a negative story about Hemispherx. Hemispherx’s stock promptly plummeted by more than 50%.
Remember, Gary Weiss is the Portfolio magazine reporter who just who just told Portfolio magazine that only “conspiracy theorists” believe that abusive short selling is a problem.
* * * * * * * *
It is too much for me to believe that Kingsford Capital’s managers (along with Gary Weiss and Asensio?) could be influencing the Columbia Journalism Review’s stories, but I do know that the magazine is now an ardent defender of short sellers and has written favorably about several of the dishonest journalists – including Gary Weiss –who were to appear in my story.
And, in its recent piece about Matsumoto’s Bloomberg bombshell, the Columbia Journalism Review cast doubt on the theory that naked short selling wiped out Lehman – never mind those 30 million shares that didn’t get delivered.
The Columbia Journalism Review reporter, who receives a salary thanks to the beneficence of Kingsford Capital, wrote this:
“Now, I don’t have a dog in the naked-shorts fight. I can’t tell you if this is being done illegally on a large-scale and having a real impact on companies. I just don’t know.”
“But one of the first things that comes to mind here is—wouldn’t you expect fails-to-deliver to soar for a company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy under an avalanche of bad news? I’d expect there would be a rush to short a stock like Lehman, which was about to collapse anyway. So, people who usually could expect to borrow shares to short might have found that they couldn’t because everybody else was doing the same thing.”
In other words, people who “could expect to borrow shares,” but “found that they couldn’t” went ahead anyway and sold 30 million shares that did not exist. This was a gross violation of securities regulations that require traders to have “affirmative determination” that a stock can, in fact, be borrowed. Assuming the intent was to manipulate the stock, it is a jailable offense.
It is true that by mid-September of last year, Lehman was on the brink of bankruptcy. Partners backed out of deals and there was a run on the bank. But people got nervous and pulled their money only because hedge funds bombarded Lehman with rumors (which are currently the subjects of a federal investigation) while simultaneously naked shorting the stock to single digits.
In July of 2008, the SEC issued an emergency order designed to prevent just this eventuality. For a few weeks, the order stopped naked short selling of Lehman Brothers and 18 other big financial companies. At this time, Lehman was not on the brink of bankruptcy.
But in early August, the SEC lifted its order and Lehman immediately came under a massive naked short selling attack. On the day the SEC lifted the order, Lehman’s stock was trading at around $20. A few weeks later, the stock was worth around $3 – a fall of 85%.
Only after this precipitous fall did Lehman’s partners begin pulling their money, making bankruptcy inevitable.
But, apparently the Columbia Journalism Review believes that it is perfectly natural for a stock to fall 85%, even though no new information (aside from unsubstantiated rumors) had entered the marketplace. According to the Columbia Journalism Review (which has, no doubt, plowed Kingsford Capital’s money into a thorough investigation of this issue), it is perfectly natural that people who “found they couldn’t” borrow stock nonetheless proceeded to flood the market with 30 million phantom shares.
The truth is, that 30 million share “mechanical error” helped bring this nation to its knees.
That’s one reason why I do have a dog in this fight.
* * * * * * * *