Recently by Matt Taibbi: The Real Housewives of GoldmanSachs
The SEC is holding a public round table Tuesday to explore several issues around securities lending, which has expanded into a big moneymaker for Wall Street firms and pension funds. Regulation hasn’t kept pace, some industry participants contend. Securities lending is central to the practice of short selling, in which investors borrow shares and sell them in a bet that the price will decline. Short sellers later hope to buy back the shares at a lower price and return them to the securities lender, booking a profit. Lending and borrowing also help market makers keep stock trading functioning smoothly.
Later on this week I have a story coming out in Rolling Stone that looks at the history of the Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapses. The story ends up being more about naked short-selling and the role it played in those incidents than I had originally planned — when I first started looking at the story months ago, I had some other issues in mind, but it turns out that there’s no way to talk about Bear and Lehman without going into the weeds of naked short-selling, and to do that takes up a lot of magazine inches. So among other things, this issue takes up a lot of space in the upcoming story.
Naked short-selling is a kind of counterfeiting scheme in which short-sellers sell shares of stock they either don’t have or won’t deliver to the buyer. The piece gets into all of this, so I won’t repeat the full description in this space now. But as this week goes on I’m going to be putting up on this site information I had to leave out of the magazine article, as well as some more timely material that I’m only just getting now.
Included in that last category is some of the fallout from this week’s SEC round table on the naked short-selling issue.
The real significance of the naked short-selling issue isn’t so much the actual volume of the behavior, i.e. the concrete effect it has on the market and on individual companies — and that has been significant, don’t get me wrong — but the fact that the practice is absurdly widespread and takes place right under the noses of the regulators, and really nothing is ever done about it.
It’s the conspicuousness of the crime that is the issue here, and the degree to which the SEC and the other financial regulators have proven themselves completely incapable of addressing the issue seriously, constantly giving in to the demands of the major banks to pare back (or shelf altogether) planned regulatory actions. There probably isn’t a better example of regulatory capture, i.e. the phenomenon of regulators being captives of the industry they ostensibly regulate, than this issue.
In that vein, starting tomorrow, the SEC is holding a public round table on the naked short-selling issue. What’s interesting about this round table is that virtually none of the invited speakers represent shareholders or companies that might be targets of naked short-selling, or indeed any activists of any kind in favor of tougher rules against the practice. Instead, all of the invitees are either banks, financial firms, or companies that sell stuff to the first two groups.
In particular, there are very few panelists — in fact only one, from what I understand — who are in favor of a simple reform called pre-borrowing. Pre-borrowing is what it sounds like; it forces short-sellers to actually possess shares before they sell them.
It’s been proven to work, as last summer the SEC, concerned about predatory naked short-selling of big companies in the wake of the Bear Stearns wipeout, instituted a temporary pre-borrow requirement for the shares of 19 fat-cat companies (no other companies were worth protecting, apparently). Naked shorting of those firms dropped off almost completely during that time.
The lack of pre-borrow voices invited to this panel is analogous to the Max Baucus health care round table last spring, when no single-payer advocates were invited. So who will get to speak? Two guys from Goldman Sachs, plus reps from Citigroup, Citadel (a hedge fund that has done the occasional short sale, to put it gently), Credit Suisse, NYSE Euronext, and so on.
In advance of this panel and in advance of proposed changes to the financial regulatory system, these players have been stepping up their lobbying efforts of late. Goldman Sachs in particular has been making its presence felt.
Last Friday I got a call from a Senate staffer who said that Goldman had just been in his boss’s office, lobbying against restrictions on naked short-selling. The aide said Goldman had passed out a fact sheet about the issue that was so ridiculous that one of the other staffers immediately thought to send it to me. When I went to actually get the document, though, the aide had had a change of heart.
Which was weird, and I thought the matter had ended there. But the exact same situation then repeated itself with another congressional staffer, who then actually passed me Goldman’s fact sheet.
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Now, the mere fact that two different congressional aides were so disgusted by Goldman’s performance that they both called me on the same day — and I don’t have a relationship with either of these people — tells you how nauseated they were.
I would later hear that Senate aides between themselves had discussed Goldman’s lobbying efforts and concluded that it was one of the most shameless performances they’d ever seen from any group of lobbyists, and that the fact sheet the company had had the balls to hand to sitting U.S. Senators was, to quote one person familiar with the situation, disgraceful and hilarious.
I’m including the Goldman fact sheets here. They will not make a whole lot of sense to people outside of the finance world, but if you can fight through them, what you’ll find is the statistical equivalent of a non-sequitur. Goldman here is lobbying against restrictions to naked short-selling, and in arguing that point they include a graph showing the levels of short interest during two time periods, September—October 2008 (when there was a temporary ban on all short-selling, naked or otherwise) and January—March 2009.
Goldman’s point seems to be that short-selling declined during a period when the market fell sharply, and short-selling went up when the market rallied. I guess on some planet, perhaps not on earth but some other spherical space-boulder, this is supposed to indicate that short-selling is good for the market overall.
(Which, incidentally, it might be. But we’re not talking about short-selling here. We’re talking about naked short-selling).
The thing is, you can’t deduce anything at all about naked short-selling by looking at a graph showing levels of normal short selling. This is like trying to draw conclusions about the frequency of date rape by looking at the number of weddings held. The two things have absolutely nothing to do with one another.
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I was so sure that I was missing something that I started asking around. If you are confused, you are not alone, one economist wrote back to me. I have no idea why they are conflating short selling and naked short selling. Members of Congress are probably confused as well.
The thing is, the only way to draw conclusions about whether or not naked short-selling is a problem is to look at individual cases of individual declines in the share prices of specific companies, and then check to see if there have been large numbers of failed trades in those stocks.
Goldman is not only not doing that here, they’re taking two statistics with no relation to naked short-selling (short interest and stock prices), stats cherry-picked during two seemingly random time-periods, and then slapping them underneath a cover sheet full of platitudes like The US equities market is increasingly efficient and broadly regarded as the best in the world. It’s not so much that this is a bad argument, it’s just not really an argument at all. It’s lazy, really. It makes you wonder what’s going on at that company.
Anyway, I’ve got to run. I’ve got some more stuff coming out in the next few days, including some transcripts of compliance officers from certain banks blabbing about this issue.
This article originally appeared on True/Slant and is reprinted with permission.