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The Naked Short Selling That Toppled Wall Street


The Wall Street Journal stated in a lead editorial last week that the SEC was “reasonable” to “clamp down” on naked short selling. Well, that was progress of sorts, though one wonders how it could have taken all these years for the nation’s most important newspaper to suggest that it might be “reasonable” to put an end to criminal activity that has eviscerated hundreds of companies and destroyed countless lives.

And now that this criminal activity has been implicated in the Humpty Dumptying of our financial system, one grows wistful for the golden age of journalism when editorialists (people working for famous newspapers, not just cyber weirdos) would express a little outrage, demand that heads roll – muster something better than “reasonable” to describe the limpid “clamp down” of an SEC that bows in oily servitude to the very short-sellers who manhandled our markets.

Alas, The Wall Street Journal is not angry about the scandal of naked short selling. To the contrary, it devotes most of its editorial to tut-tutting the SEC for taking the mild step of requiring hedge funds to disclose their short positions. This, the Journal laments, means the government wants to “slap a scarlet letter on short sellers.” And (shed a tear) hedge funds will now have to “worry that their strategies will be put on display for the world to see.”

Might the world like to see which hedge funds are employing the strategy of illegal naked short selling – offloading huge chunks of stock that they do not possess – phantom stock – in order to drive down prices? No, nothing to see there, says the Journal. Having thoroughly investigated the matter, the editorialist reports that there is “no evidence of widespread naked shorting of financial stocks in this panic.” Indeed, the Journal assures us that there is no evidence that short sellers have engaged in any market manipulation whatsoever.

That is a mighty bold claim. As the Wall Street Journal itself reported, the SEC has ordered two dozen hedge funds to turn over trading records as part of its investigation into possible short-seller manipulation of six big financial institutions — American International Group, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Washington Mutual, and Merrill Lynch.

The SEC has never in history prosecuted a major case against a short seller, and there is no reason to believe that it is actually going to nail someone now. But it is not difficult to see why the SEC feels that is has no choice but to investigate.

It must investigate, or at least appear to investigate, because the data scream, “Investigate!”

Take the case of Washington Mutual, which met its demise on the same day that the Journal published its editorial. While the SEC has not yet released data covering the last couple weeks of turmoil, the data through June show that at one point that month “failures to deliver” of Washington Mutual’s stock reached an astounding 9 million shares. From June 5 to June 19 there were, on any given day, at least 1 million WaMu shares that had “failed to deliver.”

In other words, hedge funds and brokers sold as many as 9 million shares that they did not possess (which is why they “failed to deliver” them), and they kept the market saturated with at least 1 million phantom shares for more than two weeks. WaMu’s stock price dropped by more than 30% during this period. Similar attacks, with similar effects, occurred one after another in the months leading up to June.

That is very good evidence of illegal market manipulation.

Aside from Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Fannie Mae, MBIA, Ambac, and close to 50 smaller financial firms – not to mention a couple hundred non-financial companies – have appeared on the SEC-mandated “threshold” list of companies whose stock has “failed to deliver” in excessive quantities.

That, too, is very good evidence of illegal market manipulation.

A number of the big banks never appeared on the SEC’s “threshold” list. Perhaps that explains the Journal’s claim that there is “no evidence” that naked short selling contributed to our financial crisis. If so, the Journal does not understand the methods that naked short sellers use to manipulate the markets. The Journal also does not understand how powerful financial elites manipulate the government (and the media).

Peter Chepucavage, the former SEC official who authored Regulation SHO (the rules that governed short sales from 2005 until the SEC temporarily banned short-selling of financial stock last week) has told us that the rules were watered down under fierce pressure from the hedge fund lobby.

One result is that Regulation SHO did not force short sellers to borrow real shares before they sold them. They were given three days to produce stock before it was declared a “failure to deliver.” If they missed the three-day deadline, they were given another ten days, after which they were supposed to buy (not borrow) real shares and deliver them, or face penalties.

In practice, many hedge funds and brokers ignored the deadlines without repercussions. But even traders who met the deadlines were able to churn the markets. Since they were not required to possess real shares before they hit the sell button, they could offload a large block of phantom stock and let it dilute supply for three to 13 days. When the deadline arrived, they might borrow real shares and deliver them, and then sell another block of phantom stock, which would hammer prices for another three to thirteen days.

Or, rather than borrow real shares, the hedge fund might buy stock (the price having been knocked down during 13 days of diluted supply) from a friendly broker. Often, the brokers did not have any stock to sell the hedge fund, but they pushed the sale button anyway. The hedge funds then used the broker’s phantom stock to settle its initial sale of phantom stock, and when the broker’s deadline came, he bought an equal quantity of phantom stock from another broker, and so on.

A lot of journalists have portrayed this naked short selling as “legal.” In fact, it is grossly illegal assuming the goal is to manipulate markets. But the SEC until recently shied away from making that assumption. So long as the hedge funds met the delivery deadlines, they could distort and destroy at will.

Another result of the short-seller lobby’s intervention is that a company does not appear on the SEC’s “threshold” list unless there are failures to deliver of more than 10,000 of the company’s shares (and at least 0.5% of its total shares outstanding) for five consecutive days. So long as there are no failures on day six, there are no flashing red lights at the SEC. That is, threshold (excessive) levels of phantom shares can float around the system for a total of eight days (three days before they are registered as “failures to deliver,” plus five more) without a company being designated a victim of naked short selling.

An eight-day blast (or even just a one day blast) of, say, a couple-hundred thousand phantom shares can knock down a stock’s price very nicely. Blasts of a million-plus shares, which are common, can do even more damage.

If a company has weaknesses that can be blown out of proportion with help from the media, and if hedge funds blast the company with phantom stock, then pause, then blast again, then pause, then blast again — over and over — for a couple of months, then the company’s share price can soon be in the single digits. – without ever having appeared on the SEC’s threshold list.

Unsurprisingly, the data through June shows this blast-pause-blast pattern in the stocks of nearly ever major financial institution that has been wiped off the map, and quite a few that were in death spirals before the SEC temporarily banned short-selling. Very often, huge failures to deliver have occurred in stretches of precisely five days – just long enough to keep a stock off the threshold list.

The attack on Bear Stearns, for example, began on January 9, when hedge funds naked shorted more than 1.1 million shares. The shares “failed to deliver” at the end of Friday, January 11 (the three-day deadline). For the next four days, beginning Monday, January 14, there were massive failures to deliver, peaking at 1 million shares on January 17. That is, the attack lasted a total of eight days, with failures to deliver lasting precisely five days. On day six, there were few failures to deliver, so Bear did not appear on the threshold list.

Over the next few weeks, there were several more blasts – with failures to deliver ranging from 200,000 to 500,000 shares. Those were threshold levels, but the failures lasted less than five consecutive days, so no flashing red light at the SEC.

On February 28, 800,000 shares of Bear Stearns failed to deliver. For the next five business days, anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 shares failed to deliver. On day six, there was a pause — few failures to deliver. So no threshold list – no flashing red light at the SEC.

A week later, just before CNBC’s David Faber reported the false information (given to him by a hedge fund “friend” whom he had “known for twenty years”) that Goldman Sachs had cut off Bear’s credit, somebody naked shorted more than a million shares of Bear’s stock.. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, there was a sustained effort to drive the stock to zero, with massive failures to deliver every day — peaking at 13 million shares.

This attack lasted long enough to put Bear Stearns on the threshold list, but by then, it was too late. The bank’s mangled remains had been swallowed by JP Morgan. Ultimately, at least 11 million shares of Bear Stearns were sold and never delivered.

Meanwhile, the naked short sellers began their attack on Lehman Brothers. On March 18, Lehman’s stock had begun to increase sharply, so somebody unleashed more than 1.5 million phantom shares. Those failed to deliver on March 20. For the next three days, there were failures to deliver of between 400.000 and 800.000 shares — far exceeding the daily “threshold.” That helped the share price to fall sharply, but on day five, there were no failures, so Lehman didn’t appear on the threshold list of companies victimized by naked short selling.

On April 1, another round of naked short selling commenced, coinciding with a wave of false rumors about Lehman’s liquidity. That continued until April 3, when SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, for the first time, told a Senate committee hearing that naked short selling was a big problem. Using the words “phantom stock,” he said many companies had been affected and vowed to crack down.

For a few weeks after that, there was not much new naked short selling.

Then, on May 21, short-seller David Einhorn gave his famous speech accusing Lehman’s executives of cooking their books. Though Lehman, like most banks, was guilty of participating in the dodgy business of securitized debt, it was not cooking its books. It had, however, failed to mark some of its assets down to levels prescribed by Einhorn, who waved the CMBX index as the proper barometer of commercial mortgages.

The CMBX comes from a company called Markit Group, which is owned by four hedge funds, the names of which the Markit Group will not disclose. I don’t know if the managers of those hedge funds are friends of David Einhorn, but the Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei published a story in February noting that the CMBX “doesn’t make sense.” It grossly undervalues commercial property, implying default rates, for example, that are four-times higher than they are in reality.

Nonetheless, the media, including the Wall Street Journal, trumpeted Einhorn’s analysis, which was distorted in many other ways – but that is a tale for a future blog.

For now, it is enough to know that coinciding with Einhorn’s speech, somebody naked shorted more than 200,000 shares (the settlement date for that sale was May 27, three business days after the speech, owing to a holiday weekend). Thus began a five day stretch of failures to deliver (ranging from 120,000 to 450,000 shares). On day six, as usual, there were few failures to deliver, so Lehman did not appear on the threshold list.

After a pause of a few days, somebody circulated the falsehood that Lehman had gone to the Fed for a handout. Coinciding with that rumor, hedge funds naked shorted close to 1.5 million shares. Those shares failed to deliver three days later, on June 9. The next day, there were 650,000 failures. The day after that, 263,000 failures. On day four, there were 510,000 failures. On day five, there were 623,000 failures. Time for Lehman to appear on the threshold list. But, on day six, of course, the failures to deliver stopped. No list – no flashing red light at the SEC.

Throughout this time, Einhorn continued to appear on CNBC and in the major newspapers, doing his best to make Lehman’s problems (which were real, but probably, at this stage, manageable) appear to be both catastrophic and criminal. From May 21, the day of Einhorn’s speech, to June 15, the stock lost almost half its value.

For reasons that I cannot fathom, Lehman then opted for a strategy of appeasement. Rather than challenge Einhorn’s assumptions, Lehman aimed to silence him and his media yahoos by doing what they asked. It “reduced its exposure” to mortgages, primarily by marking them down to levels dictated by Einhorn’s bogus index – the CMBX. This is the main reason why it booked a 2.8 billion loss in the second quarter.

When Lehman announced its quarterly results, on June 16, there was another blast of naked short selling, with failures to deliver at threshold levels from June 19 to June 24. Exactly five days. Then the failures stopped. No threshold list. No flashing red light.

I look forward to the day (in a few months) when the SEC will release data covering July to September. But I can tell you right now what happened next.

On June 30, somebody floated the false rumor that Barclays was going to buy Lehman at 15 dollars a share (it was then trading at 20). Simultaneously, hedge funds no doubt naked shorted large blocks of shares. It’s a safe bet that the data will show failures to deliver lasting precisely five days.

On July 10, somebody (SAC Capital?) circulated the false rumor that SAC Capital was pulling its money out of Lehman. Hours later, there was another false rumor — that PIMCO was pulling out its money. Quite certainly, these rumors were accompanied by naked short selling, with failures to deliver beginning three days later, and probably continuing at threshold levels for precisely five days. Lehman’s stock lost almost 50% of its value in the four weeks leading to July 15..

At this point, the SEC finally came to realize what was happening to Lehman. It realized that similar madness had destroyed Bear Stearns. It realized that AIG, Citigroup, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America and fifty other financial companies were getting clobbered in exactly the same fashion.

Clearly, naked short selling posed a real threat to the stability of the financial system. So the SEC issued an emergency order forcing hedge funds to borrow real stock before they sold it. No more saying “Yeah, my cousin Louie has the stock in a drawer somewhere.” No more naked short selling.

This order protected only 19 big financial institutions – which is as far as the SEC thought it could go and still retain friendly relations with its short-selling paramours – but it was something. During the three weeks that the emergency order was enforced, Lehman’s stock price increased by around 50 percent. The other companies that had been under attack enjoyed similar rebounds.

The short-sellers, of course, fumed. Some of those fumes wafted to The Wall Street Journal and other prestigious publications, which lambasted the SEC for issuing the emergency order. They published all manner of mumbo-jumbo about the emergency order wrecking “market efficiency” – though the only evidence of this was an utterly dubious report circulated by the short seller lobby (see here for the details), and it was hard to comprehend what could possibly have been “efficient” about a market getting smothered with false information and fake supply.

Of course, the SEC, captured by the short-sellers, and ever mindful of the media, decided to let its emergency order expire, and announced no new initiatives to stop naked short selling..

The day after the emergency order expired, Lehman’s stock nosedived. So did a lot of other stocks that had enjoyed a temporary reprieve.

Mark my words, the data for August and September will show that soon after the order was lifted, rampant naked short selling began anew.

It will show a sustained attack on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with failures to deliver exceeding one million shares, until the day the two companies were nationalized. It will show Lehman getting hammered (blast-pause-blast) until its stock was so low that there was no way it could raise capital. And it will show that in Lehman’s final days, hedge funds sold unprecedented amounts of phantom stock, knowing that the stock would never, ever have to be delivered.

Two days after Lehman was vaporized, AIG watched its stock fall to as low as one dollar. The data through June shows that AIG was repeatedly blasted with phantom stock, often in stretches of eight days (three + five), with peak failures to deliver reaching 2 million shares. It’s a safe bet that the data will show that these attacks continued, and grew in magnitude, until a price of one buck per share resulted in paralysis, and AIG had to be nationalized. But the company never appeared on the SEC’s threshold list.

After AIG, the rumor was that Citigroup would go down next. The data through June shows that Citigroup was bombarded – blast, pause, blast – with massive amounts of phantom stock. Failures to deliver peaked at 8 million shares. No doubt, the blasts continued and grew in magnitude in the days leading up to September 16, when Citigroup’s stock went into a death spiral.

On September 17, the SEC rushed out new rules governing naked short selling. The new rules seemed a lot like the old rules. Hedge funds would not have to actually possess stock before selling it. Instead, they would merely have to “locate” the stock. The SEC would have no way of knowing whether hedge funds had “located” stock, but if they lied and told their broker, “Yeah, I located the stock, I got it somewhere, push the sell button,” then that would be “fraud.” Presumably, the brokers, who depend on the hedge funds for most of their income, and are complicit in their naked short selling, would line up to inform the SEC that their clients were telling them lies.

Meanwhile, the hedge funds would still have three days to deliver stock, with no strong penalties for failing to do so, and no mechanism for determining whether a hedge fund had delivered real stock, as opposed to new phantom stock that it had received from a friendly broker. As for the “threshold” of five consecutive days before a company could get on the list that sets off the flashing red lights that the SEC ignores – that would remain the same.

When these rules were announced, the short-seller lobby cheered loudly. The media transcribed the lobby’s cheerful press releases, and then the naked short sellers eliminated Merrill Lynch. After that, they turned on Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, at which point both stocks went into death spirals and the companies’ CEOs treated us to the spectacle of calling the SEC to complain that Morgan and Goldman (ie., the companies that housed the brokerages that invented and profited the most from naked short selling) were now getting mauled by their own monstrous creations.

A week later, the Wall Street Journal stated in an editorial that there was “no evidence” of naked short selling or market manipulation during this financial crisis.

* * * * * * * *

P.S. I am a former employee of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. I think it is the finest editorial page in the world. I enjoyed my time at the Journal. They let me live in Europe. I got to write mean things about socialists.

But with genuine respect, I say to my former colleagues –you are like the boy in the bubble. You live and breath the “free markets” paradigm. This is healthy, but it is limiting. It is not the real world..

Please, get out of that bubble. Get dirty with the data. Behold the slop in our clearing and settlement system. Consider how this slop is affecting our market, and tell me what is free or efficient about it.

Please, do it quickly.

If you do not, this nation is screwed.

Mark Mitchell

Mitch0033@gmail.com

Posted in The Deep Capture Campaign, The Mitchell ReportComments (44)

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