October 10th, 2008 by Mark Mitchell
“Morgan Stanley shares have been under extraordinary pressure as of late, for no apparent fundamental reason, as we estimate liquidity, the balance sheet, and long-term earnings, prospects are sound.”
– Fox-Pitt analyst David Trone in a research note, today
Here we go again. A giant bank has some weaknesses, but it is, in all respects, a going concern — except that short sellers are peddling rumors and phantom stock, so the share price is plummeting. With the share price in peril, the rating agencies (perhaps over vigilant after taking so much criticism from short sellers and the media) put the bank’s debt ratings on review for a downgrade.
Meanwhile, short sellers corner the market for the bank’s credit default swaps, and point to the value of the CDS as evidence that the bank is doomed. They feed the media with analyses and bogus indexes that mark the bank’s assets to nothing. They spread the news that the bank’s counterparties and trading partners could bail. The clients and partners stay with the bank. Up until now they have no reason not to.
But then, there’s more naked short selling, the hedge funds flooding the market with stock they do not possess – phantom stock. Maybe the hedge funds send a fax to CNBC with one last rumor. Over the course of a day or two, the stock price is slashed in half. Then, suddenly, the stock is in the single digits.
As a result of the low stock price – not as result of the balance sheet – the bank’s partners and clients freak out. This time, they really do pull their money. End of bank. And if there are one or two more like this — end of story. The financial system will be fried.
We’ve seen precisely the same scenario with Bear Stearns, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, and IndyMac. A variant of this scenario took down AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and perhaps 200 other companies before them. Morgan Stanley could be gone by next week.
We have new data for September that shows that there was plenty of short selling of Morgan Stanley (and other companies) even during the SEC’s ban on short selling, which ended Wednesday at midnight. Some hedge funds ignored the ban, and the SEC did nothing. Worse, in place of the ban, the SEC has offered only tepid new rules (cheered by the short seller lobby) that do little to prevent the sale of phantom stock. Under these rules, short sellers do not have to borrow real stock before they sell it. They merely have to “locate” the stock. The SEC doesn’t say how it’s supposed to know whether a short seller has actually located real stock as opposed to telling his broker, “yeah, I located it, it’s in your mother’s wig” (which is pretty much how these conversations go).
Furthermore, the SEC gives hedge funds three days to deliver the stock they sell. This would be fine if they were required to possess real stock before selling. But since they are not, a hedge fund can offload a large block of phantom stock and let it eat away at the financial system for at least three days. Sometimes, the hedge funds settle the trade with another block of phantom stock, transferred to them by a friendly broker. But even if they fail to deliver the stock, the SEC stipulates no serious penalties. Meanwhile, it shows no inclination to actually prosecute anyone for the jailable crime of short-side market manipulation.
I’m willing to bet anybody a sizeable amount of money that when the SEC releases its “failures to deliver” numbers for October, they will suggest unbridled illegal naked short selling of Morgan Stanley during this past week, even on days when the ban on all short selling was in place. The data will show that naked short selling rose to unprecedented levels just before somebody floated Wednesday’s false rumor that Morgan Stanley was going to lose its $9 billion deal with Mitsubishi. And the data will show that after the ban was lifted, the law-breaking shorts went nuclear – with failures to deliver of well over a million shares every day. Ultimately, many millions of Morgan Stanley’s shares will be sold and never delivered, just as hedge funds have yet to deliver more than 10 million shares of Bear Stearns that they sold during that bank’s final days last March.
As I write this, Morgan’s stock price is in the single digits, trading around 7 bucks, down an astounding 70% in the 36 hours since the short selling ban was lifted. A death spiral like that does not happen naturally. Because of the short-battered stock price – and only the stock price (again, this has nothing to do with the balance sheet) — Moody’s today put Morgan’s long-term debt ratings on review for a downgrade. I suspect another 15% off the stock price, and one more well-placed rumor, will do the trick. There will be a run on the bank. Morgan will be gone. And the global financial fire will blaze still hotter.
It is beyond surreal that our most prestigious financial media continue to allow this to happen. It is beyond comprehension that journalists – in possession of the evidence, and presumably in possession of their faculties – continue to spout the line, originally formulated by short-sellers and now woven into conventional wisdom – that this crisis is only about bad mortgages and bad managers and bad balance sheets.
One can argue that, in the long run, the world is better off without half of Wall Street – without its ponzi schemes and paper profits, the sickening salaries and arrogance. Certainly, anyone with a Shakespearean
Short him, not me!
state of mind will appreciate the fates of Morgan Stanley, Lehman, and Bear – all of which eagerly pimped their dodgy prime brokerage services to the very short sellers who destroyed them.
But it does not require Shakespearean nuance to see that this crisis is not just about scandalous banks. It is about criminals destroying banks that are tawdry, yes, but possessing of some virtue, and capable, if left unmolested, of carrying on and contributing to society – perhaps even staving off a global calamity.
Moreover, these same criminals are destroying many other companies, most of which are run by honest people who labor far from the insalubrious alleyways of southern Manhattan. The SEC maintains a list of companies whose stock has failed to deliver in excessive quantities. As I explained in an earlier dispatch, many victims of naked short selling (including some of the big banks) do not appear on that list. But surely it is a scandal that more than 300 companies, many of them financial firms that have nothing to do with Wall Street, do appear on the list.
Surely, it is an even bigger scandal that around 100 of those companies have appeared on the list chronically, day after day, for months on end, and though the sheriff posts the names of these rape victims on its wall, it has yet to prosecute a single rapist. The SEC tells us that a billion shares remain undelivered on any given day — and yet it doesn’t bother to find out which hedge funds sold the phantom stock.
It might be too late, but if Washington and the financial media really want to save the world, they ought to start by demanding that hedge funds borrow real stock before they sell it. And what the heck: Maybe some newspaper could offer the radical suggestion that the SEC should tell hedge funds that they can either go to jail or close out all unsettled trades – today.
If one hedge fund manager were to get cuffed, all the others with outstanding “failures to deliver” might scramble to buy real stock so they can settle. The markets might soar. The innocent victims might get some relief. And the delinquents on Wall Street would get some time to clean up their acts.
Meanwhile, would anyone care to guess which company the naked short sellers will take down after Morgan Stanley?
And would anyone like to share a bunker with canned goods and weapons?
If you’d like to place that bet on the Morgan Stanley data (I’ll give 2:1 odds that it will show short sellers offloading massive amounts of phantom stock , with more than a million “failures to deliver” every day) feel free to contact me. Mitch0033@gmail.com.