Sunday, September 21, 2008

A weekend roundup...

The weekend started with Herald running a series of articles on the probablility of a "dirty election". Not that the election might be won fraudulently (in the direct sense) but the emergence of the "dirty trick brigades". Think, if you are American, of the SWIFT boat saga in the last elections or Richard Nixon and Watergate for extreme parallels.

Rochelle Rees' background with the Labour Party was revealed by bloggers yesterday after news stories she was behind a ploy to ensure Mr Key's website link was the first to appear when people searched for "clueless" on Google.

Yesterday, National leader John Key said it was another example of petty attacks on him by Labour.

Link to the Labour Party or not is not the issue here. The real issue is the denigration of the electoral process.

The second theme was run by the business pages of Sunday Star Times. The headline "Gluttons Table Set by Central Banks" was a good hook to a Gareth Morgan analysis of the weeks' crises in the international finance markets.
If you think that global financial "crises" seem to be happening with increasing frequency, congratulations - you're right.
It was back in 1996 that Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who was really at the centre of the liquidity flood, declared the sharemarket was suffering from "irrational exuberance".

The market ignored his warning and it wasn't till two years later, in 1998, that it suffered its first setback. When hedge fund manager Long Term Capital made some wrong bets and was staring down the barrel at bankruptcy, the US central bank decided this institution was too big to fail and organised a consortium of investment banks to absorb its assets.

The Long Term Capital episode was the first big indication that the financial system was getting sick. If a single institution that was only four years old was too big to fail without bringing the US financial system down, then something was wrong with the system. But it would get worse.

Nice to have the 20/20 now, but let's follow a bit further...
Oh oh! Here's the problem. Central banks, and the Fed in particular, have become so addicted to the need for economic growth each year that they have sacrificed a tenet of sound central banking. It seems they no longer care whether lending by banking is within prudential bounds.

Indeed, it is their effective prudential supervision that they have sacrificed at the altar of this newfound, but ultimately false, belief - that you can have continual economic growth and low inflation. This shows a surreal confidence in the private sector's ability to constantly deliver sufficient productivity gains so that inflation isn't an issue, plus deliver more income to everyone in the economy year after year.

Not covered here, but a strong echo of the 1929 crash - which was fuelled in part by the fervor for stock - any stock - as long as it earned more than the money borrowed to buy it.
Also in the same section this morning was this news item.

Now I spoke of "derivative trading" in my last bit on the subject.
In the past two weeks billions of dollars have vanished as the shares in Australia's Macquarie Group have fallen 45 percent, America's Morgan Stanley 47%, Goldman Sachs, 35 percent.

Their plummeting stocks appear to be following other financial giants into the abyss, as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and HBOS suffered such meltdowns they were forced to sell to rivals.

Bear, which hit trouble in March, was acquired by JP Morgan Chase in May. Lehman filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday and its core businesses were acquired by British bank Barclays the following day. Merrill Lynch is now owned by Bank of America after watching its shares dive 38% in less than a week. HBOS went to fellow British bank Lloyds TSB on Thursday after its shares fell 40% in a matter of days.

The screaming headlines say these institutions were victims of a financial meltdown as their dangerous punts on speculative debts turned septic.

There's another story and it's not pretty either.

Sydney-based Macquarie Group believes it is the victim of a concerted campaign to manipulate its share price and Australia's market regulator has started an inquiry into allegations that short-sellers who profit from falling shares are spreading false rumours.

Now hang on a sec!! What's this? Spreading false rumours to create loss in value on specific stocks?
An inquiry immediately announced by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission was echoed by New York attorney-general Mario Cuomo, who announced on Thursday a probe into possible illegal short selling in financial stocks.

"This investigation will not only encompass short-selling of Lehman Brothers and AIG but also short-selling in other companies that may be occurring, like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs," he said.

In Australia, short-sellers are required to report their positions to the stock exchange daily. "Clearly some haven't been doing that," said one market source.

OK, so what is "short selling"?

TO "short sell" you first borrow someone else's stock. You sell it on the open market. You then wait for the value of that stock to fall. Then you buy back the same stock - at hopefully a considerable gain. The apparent risk is that the stock does not fall - which is where the dirty tricks brigade come in to play.

But, it gets worse -
In practice, in Australia only "naked" short sales are being reported to the exchange - these are deals where the short seller has not yet borrowed stock. A legal ambiguity means "covered" shorting, where the seller has borrowed shares, is not reported to the ASX. As a result, no one knows how big those positions are.

Say WHAT? Selling stock you don't own, or haven't even borrowed yet?
Executives at Bear Stearns believe they were the victims of just such a calculated attack by short sellers. In a detailed exploration of the fall of Bear published last month, Vanity Fair journalist Bryan Burrough uncovered signs of deliberate efforts to undermine confidence in the firm.

He quotes a senior executive at a rival firm: "If I had to pick the biggest financial crime ever perpetuated, I would say, Bear Stearns."

Proving someone was behind the Bear collapse, or any other share price death spiral, is tough. The firms that are targeted are vulnerable precisely because they are highly leveraged and it may be easy for a short seller to point to evidence supporting their negative view of a stock.

You betcha it would be. Super tough.

The article concludes -

UNITED STATES: September 18 - New York attorney-general Mario Cuomo announces probe into alleged illegal short selling of shares in giant investment banks Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and insurer AIG. Short selling is a share trading strategy where a trader borrows shares and sells them on market in the hope they can be bought back more cheaply later. September 17 - Securities & Exchange Commission bans "naked" short selling, in which traders sell stock without first arranging to borrow it.

UNITED KINGDOM: September 18 - The Financial Services Authority bans all short selling in financial companies until January 16. It said anyone creating a net short position in a financial sector company is "engaging in behaviour that is market abuse [misleading behaviour]."

AUSTRALIA: September 17 - Australian Securities & Investments Commission announces extension of inquiry into market manipulation and false rumours, citing specific alleged false rumours against Macquarie Group.

Anyone hearing stable doors being slammed on empty stalls?

And Roundup? Very popular here in the agricultural community for some years. There was a bit I caught during the the week on the use of glyphosphate on roses imported from India to stop their propagation in this country, and just how easy it was to do just that.

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