Stupidity, populism, and playing to the idiots? It’s evergreen.

Sep 20 2008

Where to start?

The short-selling ban that is in place from yesterday through October 2 (or later) is an abomination. Not only is it bad policy in an absolute sense, it’s made worse by the cynical hypocrisy of those who begged for it to be put into place.

It’s one thing for an amiable boob like Patrick Byrne to whine about short-sellers and how they’re killing his company. I’m willing to give Byrne some small measure of benefit of the doubt, since finance isn’t his claim to fame. But when the chairmen of the Federal Reserve and the SEC, along with the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, now Treasury Secretary, start whining out of the same hymn book, they’re not serious, not believable, and are clearly playing to the idiots in the audience.

Short selling, the act of selling shares you don’t own, with the expectation that you’ll be able to buy them back later at a price equal to or lower than the price at which you sold the. Simple, really. And it’s got nothing to do with wanting to harm the company whose shares you’ve sold short. It’s simply an expression of opinion that the shares are overvalued, for one reason or another.

Selling short, then spreading false rumors against a company is an offense for which one can be pursued in a court of law. Funny thing, though – not selling short, then spreading false rumors against a company is also an offense for which one can be pursued in a court of law. If you do the verbal algebra, it becomes clear that selling short has nothing to do with the illegality of false rumors. And the law recognizes this – selling short is, in anything approaching sane regulatory times, not illegal at all.

Selling short can occur for many reasons, in many different contexts. Everyone I’ve read focuses on bets that a stock might or should go down. I’ll go you one better. For instance, to take a random example, let’s just say that the Investment Banking group in Goldman Sachs’ Chicago office were doing a public offering of stock for a client.

Such offerings typically include an underwriter’s option for an additional 15% of the shares being offered as “the green shoe”, to cover overallocations. Since an investment bank typically has no interest, and certainly has no requirement, to be an owner of stock in the companies for which it provides underwriting, if an offering looks successful, and the demand is high enough to make exercising their option for the “green shoe”, the normal action an investment bank takes is to sell short a number of shares equal to the amount of the green shoe, knowing that they’ll be able to replace those shares with the additional 15% for overallocation. If the stock has run up in the aftermath of the offering, better still – they can sell stock that’s more expensive than the offering price, knowing full well that they can replace it at the offering price. But at a minimum, they already know the price at which they can buy the stock in the future, so this isn’t a bet that the stock will go down.

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, having been the head of investment banking for Goldman Sachs’ Midwest Region (1983-1988), then managing partner of the Chicago office, followed by co-head of IB for the entire firm, can safely be presumed to know all of this.

Neither SEC Chairman Cox and Fed Chairman Bernanke has any experience in capital markets, but neither of them can assert ignorance of the role that short selling plays in the market.

And who’s been calling loudest for limitations on short selling? The investment banks, solvent and formerly-solvent:

Lehman:

Lehman executives complain that they have been singled out by hedge fund investors that are short selling — or betting against — their stock, and Mr. Fuld has called senior executives at competitor banks demanding that their employees stop criticizing Lehman.

Morgan Stanley:

The mood was far different at Morgan Stanley, which lobbied vigorously for the ban on short selling. The bank’s shares shot up 21 percent, to $27.21, on Friday. Analysts said the reprieve might be only temporary, though, because the firm’s business model still requires a big balance sheet and core base of deposits for financing.

Goldman Sachs:

…the SEC is this afternoon holding a meeting to “determine if they need to take further steps to curtail what both Mac and [Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd] Blankfein characterize as improper short selling that is really causing damage to the share price of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.” Blankfein also spoke with Cox to complain of short selling of their stock, as did New York senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, according to Gasparino’s sources.

And so on. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, AIG, and a host of others, all now functionally dead as public companies, claimed loudly, with much gesticulation, that short sellers, not their crappy business models or abysmal risk management, were the reason for the drops in their stock prices.

New York’s AG Andrew Cuomo:

Likening such traders to “looters after a hurricane,” New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo Thursday said his office is investigating “a significant number” of complaints about improper short selling in shares of Lehman Bros., AIG, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and other financial stocks.

Cuomo said his investigation would use the New York state Martin Act, which subjects violators to criminal as well as civil penalties, to combat the illegal practices.

“The markets need to be stabilized,” Cuomo said. “And one way to bring about such stability is to root out and deter short-selling that is based on the spread of false information.”

Sorry, Spanky – you left one class of people out: Weather forecasters before a hurricane. Deter short selling based on the spread of false information? Sure – go ahead, although there are already laws in place to do that, so knock yourself out enforcing them, with my blessing and encouragement. Disallow short selling itself, as though there’s no valid reason for a non-rumor-spreading trader to do? Utterly stupid. And impressive only to the self interested (the banks) or ill-educated (all other non-bankers who’ve complained about short selling).

Applauded only by the greedy & ignorant? Must be a great plan, then. I’ll take all this addle-pated nonsense about “gangs of people getting together to sell shares of a stock” seriously when several things also happen:

  • The same idiots decide to go after “gangs of people getting together to buy shares of a stock” (Cramer – I’m looking at you and everyone like you).
  • Someone explains to me the difference between a short seller selling a share of stock and an actual holder of the stock selling a share of stock. The market neither knows nor cares.
  • Which raises the question of what’s next? Disallowing down-ticks entirely? Disallowing any sale of the stocks of the protected 799 alleged-financial companies? Even by widows and orphans who actually hold shares? What is this, the Hotel California?

Issue Two” (please read that to yourself in John McGlaughlin’s voice, for best effect)
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