You may remember Peter Weir’s 1998 film, The Truman Show, in which the protagonist (Jim Carrey) is enjoying what he perceives as a picture-perfect life in the idyllic town of Seahaven, but which is in fact a 24/7 TV show being broadcast globally from an enormous Hollywood sound stage. The process by which he comes to recognize that he lives within a constructed and ersatz reality provides the narrative arc of the story. One seminal moment in his awakening occurs in this scene:
My long crusade (or Mitzvah, or Jihad, depending upon what side you’re on) against Wall Street corruption has seen similar Truman Show moments. As is described in Mark Mitchell’s The Story of Deep Capture, in November, 2004 a fellow calling himself “Bob O’Brien” called me to explain some wild-sounding theories about Wall Street criminality. I did not pay much attention to him, because he opened the conversation candidly letting me know that “Bob O’Brien” was not his real name, and that he was living out of a backpack in foreign lands for fear of getting whacked by Organized Crime. He sensed my disbelief, so before he signed off he told me he was going to make four long-shot predictions, and when they came true, to get back in touch with him. His predictions were as follows: a specific set of journalists (from whom, incidentally, I had never previously heard) would all be calling to do hatchet jobs on me; that Overstock stock would be getting listed on numerous obscure foreign exchanges; that I would become the target of a federal investigation; and that the SEC had recently adopted a regulation, Reg SHO, mandating that starting in January 2005 (two months hence), US exchanges would have to start listing stocks which were seeing excessive failures to deliver (a sign of market manipulation), and Overstock would be one of them. I thanked him and hung up, chuckling to myself.
A day or so after “O’Brien” called I received a call from the first of the journalists he named, and over the following two weeks, all of them called me. Our stock became listed on exchanges in Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin, Bavaria, Hamburg, Bahamas, and Australia. I went under the first of numerous federal investigations (when one ends another immediately starts in its place, and through litigation discovery and FOIA requests we have confirmed the existence of a minor industry of hedge funds and hedge fund choagies who perpetually lobby various government agencies to investigate me on trivial, obscure, and even Kafkaesque matters: remarkably, those government employees compliantly obey, in some cases shortly before taking jobs with the hedge funds who requested such concierge service). And in January, 2005, NASDAQ stared publishing its Reg SHO list of manipulated stocks: there are almost 3,000 firms listed on NASDAQ, a few dozen of which were on the Reg SHO list, and OSTK was one of them.
It was a minor Truman Show moment: if the world is organized as it appears on the surface, it should not be possible for a spotlight to fall out of the blue sky onto the street. And it should not be possible for a guy to make four wild predictions and have them all come true. The philosophers of science tell us that the power of any theory is its ability to make predictions. This guy made some far-out predictions, they all came true, and it would have been intellectually dishonest of me to dismiss him just because he said he was calling from a payphone at a Guatemalan bus stop to keep the Mob from whacking him, and was laying down a rather heavy rap about market manipulation, Organized Crime, and some of the major players on Wall Street.
So I began studying the issue he had been describing to me, that is, our capital market’s stock settlement system and its various loopholes. Over time, I came to understand that it was not just sloppy, it was sloppy to an almosst inconceivable degree. I could not imagine how it had been designed to tolerate that much slop, unless someone wanted it to be sloppy.
But the real Truman Show moment came in April, 2005, from the SEC itself, which never lets me down. It came in the form of a memo they posted on their sec.gov website. It has been taken down, but thanks to the wonders of the WayBack Machine we can still visit it in archived form. In it, they described their purpose in implementing Reg SHO, what it did and did not mean, and crucially, why they decided to “grandfather” (that is, forgive) all the failed trades that were in the system at the time of the passing of Reg SHO. If you are paying attention, you will have the same reaction to this as Jim Carrey did when the spotlight fell from the sky onto the street in front of his home:
Division of Market Regulation:
Key Points About Regulation SHO
Date: April 11, 2005
F. Grandfathering Under Regulation SHO
The requirement to close-out fail to deliver positions in threshold securities that remain for 13 consecutive settlement days does not apply to positions that were established prior to the security becoming a threshold security. This is known as “grandfathering.” For example, open fail positions in securities that existed prior to the effective date of Regulation SHO on January 3, 2005 are not required to be closed out under Regulation SHO.
The grandfathering provisions of Regulation SHO were adopted because the Commission was concerned about creating volatility where there were large pre-existing open positions.
Why that explanation struck me as so bizarre is because the SEC passed Reg SHO only under intense and unprecedented public pressure, insisting the whole time that it was not needed because naked shorting was not going on and there were no significant failed positions in the market. Then, they passed it with a loophole saying that it “does not apply to positions that were established prior to the security becoming a threshold security”, justifying this “grandfathering” on the grounds that: ” the Commission was concerned about creating volatility where there were large pre-existing open positions.”
If you are following along, the preceding statement by the SEC should seem Truman-Show-strange to you. Think of it this way: The SEC was simultaneously arguing that there were no large open failed positions and even if there were they would not affect the market; but, they had to forgive all of them already in the system because if those non-existent large open positions were forced to cover it would create volatility. In sum: The large open failed positions do not exist, and if they existed they would not be affecting prices, but reversing those non-existent, non-price-affecting large open positions would crack the market.
To me, seeing that posted on the SEC website was like seeing a spotlight crash into the street out of a blue sky.
I am going to expand this story a bit, in a way that it will become even stranger.
Again, the SEC passed Reg SHO only under intense public pressure in 2003-2004. My source from inside the SEC has told me that never in his career had there been an issue that Wall Street’s lobby fought with such intensity, and that throughout that battle, the upper echelons of the SEC (e.g., Annette Nazareth, Linda Thomsen, James Bragagliano, Eric Sirri) were carrying water for Wall Street. During that period, the SEC’s push-back to the public was that Reg SHO was not needed because there naked short selling was not going on, and hence, there were no significant delivery failures in the market.
Under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), before making final decision is reached about the wording of a new regulation, a US regulator has to propose to the public the regulation that is being considered, in order to give the public time to comment. Following this process, in 2004, under this intense public pressure, the SEC proposed a version of Reg SHO that had tiny teeth in it. After a period of public comment that was overwhelmingly in favor of making Reg SHO tougher, the SEC adopted a version that had no teeth at all. Even within the SEC this was regarded as a transparent legalistic bait-and-switch, one that let them thwart public pressure yet keep the SEC in technical compliance with the APA.
In early 2005 the exchanges (such as NASDAQ and NYSE) began publishing Reg SHO lists. The persistence of names on these lists demonstrated that failing to deliver stock was, in fact, a regular feature of our capital market, the SEC’s protestations notwithstanding. In response, the SEC began arguing that, while yes, it was occurring after all, it was minor, inadvertent, and random, a result of random human error. Then in June, 2005, a consulting economist they hired, Dr. Lesli Boni, published Strategic Delivery Failures in U.S. Equity Markets, which told just the opposite tale. In her summary she wrote:
“Using a unique dataset of the entire cross-section of U.S. equities, we document the pervasiveness of delivery failures and provide evidence consistent with the hypothesis that market makers strategically fail to deliver shares when borrowing costs are high. We also document that many of the firms that allow others to fail to deliver to them are themselves responsible for fails-to-deliver in other stocks. Our findings suggest that many firms allow others to fail strategically simply because they are unwilling to earn a reputation for forcing delivery and hope to receive quid pro quo for their own strategic fails.”
People who were calling for transparency on this issue found themselves fighting the SEC to obtain even the most basic data. Many resorted to Freedom of Information Act requests, and even then, had to fight for each morsel of data. The SEC stuck to its guns, insisting that this was a non-issue, yet opposing the public release of data that could instantly determine who was right.
In the years following that I became part of a movement that fought skirmishes with the SEC. I funded the deployment to Washington of entire legal and lobbying teams who tried to convince Congressmen and Senators of the seriousness of this problem, and take even the most obvious, commonsensical steps to address it (not for the company I happen to run, but for the marketplace as a whole). We tried to get Congress to pressure the SEC simply to disclose the data, or better yet, to eliminate the grandfather clause and the option market maker exception, and (our greatest hope) enforce a pre-borrow requirement on all shorting. Throughout this period, I was frequently made aware that lobbying on the other side of the table were the Wall Street banks, and the SEC itself.
Then, in 2008, our financial system began imploding, and the SEC immediately passed an unprecedented emergency order (“SEC Enhances Investor Protections Against Naked Short Selling“) granting the most aggressive form of protection we had been seeking (imposing a pre-borrow requirement on short selling), yet extending it only to the 19 most significant financial firms at the heart of Wall Street. That seemed odd on many levels, not the least of which was that many of those firms were prime brokers who had been enabling hedge funds to do it to other publicly traded companies.
Then, in September, 2008, the SEC rolled out a market-wide reform that was, once again, carefully designed to be toothless. It was around this time that I began publicly describing the SEC as bootlick of Wall Street (“Overstock CEO Comments on SEC’s New Rules Against Naked Short Selling: ‘Nerf penalties for financial rapists’ declares Byrne”).
In October and November of 2008, regulators around the globe began taking emergency measures:
September 21, 2008 Associated Press: “Dutch ban ‘naked’ short selling for 3 months: The Dutch Finance Minister is banning ‘naked’ short selling of financial stocks for the next three months to increase the stability of financial markets…”
October 28, 2008 Wall Street Journal: “Japan Cracks Down on Naked Short Selling: Tokyo: Japan moved Tuesday imposed new restrictions on so-called “naked” short selling of stocks…”
November 14, 2008 “Australia bans naked short-selling: CANBERRA: Australia moved to slap a permanent ban on the most controversial form of short-selling yesterday amid an historic fall in share prices, part of a crackdown that is also targeting hedge funds and credit rating agencies.”
November 21, 2008 – The Financial Times: “Regulators to discuss short selling rules: Global securities regulators will gather on Monday to discuss rules on short selling and disclosure of credit derivatives, the head of the US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Thursday.”
November 24, 2008 Reuters “Global regulators focus on abusive short selling”
Then, in December, while regulators in the rest of the modern world focused on cracks in their respective settlement system, the SEC switched back to dragging its feet:
December 9 – Reuters: “SEC urged to do more to curb naked short selling”
Since then, settlement issues have been at the forefront of discussions of the financial crisis in Europe and the rest of the world. Germany: “Merkel sticks to her guns, calls for global market reform: Angela Merkel told a meeting of international financial leaders that the G-20 must work together to reform the finance system. Merkel is pushing for tougher market regulations….” Britain, March 7, 2011: “MEPs vote for ‘naked’ short-selling restrictions”. European Union: “Merkel, Sarkozy seek EU ban on naked short selling, CDS”. Japan: “Japan to extend naked short selling ban to Oct”. Etc.
Yet in the US, the issue has, once again, disappeared. How utterly odd.
In sum, then, since 2003 the settlement system which underlies our capital markets has seen problems that disappeared, reappeared, disappeared, reappeared, and disappeared to suit the needs of the Wall Street elite and their handmaidens at the SEC. Initially, in 2003-2004, there were (according to the SEC) no problems in the settlement system worth speaking of. Then in 2004, the SEC passed a rule, Reg SHO, that did nothing of substance beyond drawing draw bull’s-eyes on firms already being manipulated: to do so, they danced within the outer limits of the Administrative Procedures Act, whose purpose is precisely the opposite of the use to which it was put by the SEC. Yet in April, 2005 the SEC explained that the rule they passed had grandfathered the problem “because the Commission was concerned about creating volatility where there were large pre-existing open positions” that until then they had insisted did not exist. Simultaneously, the SEC continued to claim that the problems in the settlement system were negligible and inadvertent, until in June 2005 their own economist, Lesli Boni, showed they were pervasive and deliberate. From 2005-2007 the SEC continued to insist that they were not significant, but fought tooth-and-nail to prevent being released to the public the data that would decide things one way or another. Then in 2008 the SEC suddenly considered it a massive problem requiring an unprecedented emergency regulation to stop it, but just for those Wall Street banks which had for years been enabling it against other publicly traded companies. Then while regulators in the rest of the modern world have spent 2009 -2011 figuring out how to fix holes in their settlement systems, the SEC has switched back to regularly scheduled Muzak on the subject.
The government and Wall Street lawyers who went along for this ride display a mentality best described in this passage from Orwell’s 1984:
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”
But the greatest Truman Show weirdness comes from the rest of us, driving away, listening to the radio.