Naked Short Selling Is One Problem A Slumping Market Shouldn't Have
By Christopher Cox
Investor's Business Daily, Inc
July 17, 2008
The demise of IndyMac, coming on the heels of Bear Stearns' desperate sale to JPMorgan Chase, is a sure sign of the fragility of today's markets. What's needed now, more than ever, is reliable information for investors and confidence that trading can be conducted without the illegal influence of manipulation.
Because financial institutions depend on confidence, they are uniquely vulnerable in the current climate. A "run on the bank" can take hold quickly, and can be fatal. But stampedes are not always rational.
When an irrational panic is fueled by a sense of urgency, false rumors that must be acted on immediately and the fear that everyone else may get out first, market integrity is threatened. It is the job of market cops to provide a measure of confidence that financial information about public companies is accurate and reliable and when it is not, to punish those responsible.
Who profits from intentionally false information in the marketplace? Those who are in on the scam and positioned to benefit from the predictable response of others who believe the fraudulent information to be true.
The classic "pump and dump" scheme, in which a stock is inflated through false information and then dumped on unsuspecting investors when the perpetrators flee, is one example of how this works. "Distort and short" is the same thing in reverse.
Naked short selling can turbocharge these "distort and short" schemes. In a naked short, the usual process of short selling is circumvented, because the seller doesn't actually borrow the stock and simply fails to deliver it. For this reason, naked shorting can occur even when actual shares aren't available in the market. It allows manipulators to force prices down without regard to supply and demand.
Next week, the SEC will implement an emergency order designed to prevent naked short selling in the financial firms that the Federal Reserve Board has designated as eligible for access to its liquidity facilities.
Because these are large firms with substantial public float, honest short sellers can readily locate shares to make good on their short positions. Continued legitimate short selling in these issues will act, as it is supposed to, as a way for market participants to invest in the downside and to hedge other positions.
At the same time, eliminating the prospect of naked short selling will help assure investors that it is safe for them to participate, and that the current declining market is not the product of unseen manipulators and "distort and short" artists.
Our emergency order is not a response to unbridled naked short selling in financial issues so far, that has not occurred but rather it is intended as a preventative step to help restore market confidence at a time when it is sorely needed.
Many people think naked short selling is already illegal, but that isn't true. Shares are normally delivered to the buyers within three days of the trade. But in most stocks, including those covered by our emergency order, that three-day period can be extended indefinitely.
Even without these extensions, and even when a short seller locates shares that can be borrowed, there can be problems because the short seller is not currently required to actually borrow those shares until settlement.
As a result, securities lenders can tell multiple short sellers they can borrow the same shares of stock a sure recipe for a failure to deliver. Once the commission's order takes effect, this possibility will no longer exist.
The SEC is committed to maintaining orderly securities markets. The abusive practice of naked short selling is far different from ordinary short selling, which is a healthy and necessary part of a free market.
Our agency's rules are highly supportive of short selling, which can help quickly transmit price signals in response to negative information or prospects for a company. Short selling helps prevent "irrational exuberance" and bubbles.
But when someone fails to borrow and deliver the securities needed to make good on a short position, after failing even to determine that they can be borrowed, that is not contributing to an orderly market it is undermining it. And in the context of a potential "distort and short" campaign aimed at an otherwise sound financial institution, this kind of manipulative activity can have drastic consequences.
It was famously perhaps too famously said that "markets will fluctuate." That is certainly true if they are well-functioning. As market referee, the SEC neither can nor should direct the market's fluctuations. Instead, our most basic role is to ensure a continued flow of liquidity to the markets from participants who are confident the game isn't rigged against them.
Naked short selling can undermine the market's integrity. For the financial sector in this crisis, certainly, but as soon as possible for the entire market, this is one worry investors shouldn't have.
Cox is chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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