Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Naked short selling. Modern financial sin

Heard the phase "naked short selling" on the radio this morning. New one on me. Visions of middle aged stock brokers pole dancing on conference room tables passed thru my mind. The Vermont Public Radio story alleged that short selling was responsible for the fall of Fannie and Freddie. This sounded so juicy that I googled for it, and found definitions.
Apparently ordinary short selling (selling a stock you don't own, waiting for the price to fall, and buying it at the lower price to deliver to the previous buyer) is now "naked" short selling. It isn't illegal per se, at least not in the US, but the SEC frowns on the practice. They prefer "covered" short selling, where in the seller "borrows" the stock, sells it, and then buys it back later to repay the lender of the stock. Naked short selling for the purpose of effecting a stock's market price is forbidden. Another one of those highly effective laws. "No your honor, I never intended for my short sale of two million shares to lower the price of ..." More welfare for lawyers.
Even in this day and age of gigahertz computers, sellers have three business days to deliver the stock to the seller. That's three days to allow the stock price to fall and make the short sale profitable. If the SEC really wanted to make short selling go away, they could shorten up the delivery time to something reasonable like three hours after the market closes for the day. And prohibit paying over the money before delivery of the stock.
There is a small number of "failure to deliver" events in the ordinary course of business. You could clamp down on that with stiffer penalties. Taking money and not delivering stock is straight out fraud.
As for Fannie and Freddie, whose stock is in the tank. Both companies have lost a lot of money this year and everyone expects them to loose a lot more in the future. Stocks are only worth owning if they are expected to go up in price. If the company is loosing money, its stock isn't going up, everyone knows this. So stockholders sell while the stock is still worth something.

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