I’ve been reading some of the stories on Deep Capture regarding our financial system, naked short selling and the mainstream financial media. Naked short selling is described here:
You and I enter a stock trade. You buy a share of stock from me. You hand over your money, and I hand over the share of stock. That is called, “settlement.”
It may surprise you to learn that there are loopholes in our nation’s regulations that permit some people, when it comes time to settle, to hand over nothing but an IOU.
…The general idea is that, if someone sells shares it turns out he cannot deliver, he can create these IOU’s and send them on as though they were real shares, giving himself time to clean up whatever error he is experiencing, and sending the real shares a couple days later.
There is no system in place to alert you to the fact that you sent me your money and received nothing but an IOU. The system treats these IOU’s just as though they were real shares. Your brokerage statement will say that you got shares, even though I never sent anything but an IOU. You can sell them, and that IOU will pass on through the system into someone else’s account.
The problem is, suppose I (having mastered these loopholes) start using the system’s “forgiveness” strategically? Suppose I find a company that is likely to need capital to expand, or simply survive, in the near future? They plan on raising that capital by issuing shares of stock to the public… Imagine that I target one of them, and deliberately go out selling that company’s shares into the marketplace, yet instead of delivering stock, I deliver nothing but IOU’s. I flood the market with them, always standing ready to sell more than anyone wants to buy. My IOU’s are anything but temporary: they drift around in the market for weeks, months, and eventually years. If anyone gets mad and tells me that I have to deliver real shares against one of the IOU’s I sold, I say, “Sure, I’ll deliver shares against that IOU,” but what I deliver is … just another IOU. Eventually I flood the market with so many IOU’s that people end up reselling them, and they go and on until there are more share-IOU’s bouncing around than there are actual shares.
If…I choose a tiny company, and I generate more IOU’s than there are shares of stock in the company, then the market in those shares will crack… Once cracked, the stock becomes next-to-worthless. And if I manage to issue enough IOU’s in my target company’s stock that it cracks and becomes near-worthless, they become barely an obligation at all. Who cares about millions of IOU’s, if those IOU’s are for something with infinitesimal value?
I walk away with my winnings. The company, however, is in a fix: they planned on issuing stock to raise capital, but now their stock price has been destroyed through my manipulations, and they cannot raise capital. Maybe they run out of funds and disappear, or maybe they go into hibernation mode in order to nurse what capital they have.
A big part of the story was the role of the media. If I weren’t generally so uninspired by the competence of the media, I might be surprised at how easily they were manipulated.
One person that was particularly emphasized in the research was CNBC’s Jim Cramer (link):
As was becoming my custom, at the end of the quarter I wrote a lengthy shareholder letter explaining what was going on in the business, where my colleagues were doing well, where I was screwing up, and projects the company needed to accomplish in the future. In that letter I mentioned, “Gross profit,” a term about as common in the discussion of financial statements as, I’d estimate, the term “wide receiver” is in discussions of football (in the case of my letter, 2.5% of the letter concerned gross profit).
The day our earnings press release appeared (with my letter embedded in it), Larry Kudlow & Jim Cramer of CNBC invited me to appear on their TV show. I had been on Kudlow & Cramer once or twice by then and they seemed like smart, decent fellows, so I agreed, and drove to the studio in Salt Lake City from whence one does remote interviews. This interview was different from our prior ones, however, in that they attacked me aggresively. The basis of their attack was my use of the mysterious phrase, “Gross profit,” in my discussion of Overstock’s financials. Cramer in particular berated me as if he had caught me in some heinous incantation. They gave me a brief moment to respond, then quickly signed off.
As I drove away from the studio feeling somewhat mystified, my cell phone rang. The caller was a man from deep within Wall Street “smart money” circles, someone known widely within the hedge fund community, who has been friendly to me, and even has looked out for me when he could. He speaks in charming if profane emphatics.
He said, “You know what just happened, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You want to know what just happened? I’ll f—ing tellyou what just happened. Here’s how it works. Those two guys are part of the short-seller community. Cramer especially is part of this ring of hard-charging short-sellers on Wall Street. I’ll bet you anything that one of his buddies is short your company. Whoever it is saw your earnings release, saw you blew your numbers away, got on the phone to Cramer and said, ‘Don’t you dare let this thing start moving. Don’t you f—ing darelet this move!’ So Cramer goes on TV and screams that nonsense at you. I bet my last f—ing dollar that’s what happened.”
Cramer pretty much admitted to his crimes here. In his book, he also admitted to talking up stocks he’s invested in.
Anyway, I’ve been reading this stuff, and was pleasantly surprised to see Jon Stewart’s interview with him. See here and here.
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