It was announced by Reuters News today that regulators at the New York Stock Exchange have fined Goldman Sachs Execution & Clearing Corp. $450,000 in connection with roughly 385 orders to “short” equity securities for clients that resulted in “fail-to-deliver” positions without first borrowing or arranging to borrow the securities as collateral. The nearly 400 infractions occurred in a seven week period in December 2008 – January 2009.
So that timely delivery of the shares sold can be made to buyers, a rule has existed for decades that says investors cannot sell securities short unless arrangements have been made to borrow such securities. Stock shares can be made available to lend by anyone who owns those shares. For example, when margin agreements are signed at a brokerage firms by investors, the agreement contains language which allows their securities to be rented to those seeking to sell the shares short, (The rent charged is almost always kept by the firm.) This can happen at the same brokerage firm or arrangements can be made by one firm to lend available securities to another firm to transact short sales for itself or its clients.
There are have been many examples of “short squeezes”, some undoubtedly intentional, in which shares are either not available to meet borrowing demand, or shares previously lent are reclaimed. This caused short sellers to have to scramble to find shares or be “bought in” on the open market. In some situations in the past, the law of supply and demand for shares has caused the price of the stock to rise to two or three times its pre-squeeze price, wiping out the short sellers. Thus, rampant short selling had its own unique deterrent.
It is up to the brokerage community to police the borrowing rule. Through computers, availability of shares can be very easily learned before a short sale is executed. In the “heydays” of day trading firms during the 1990’s, day traders would seek to “block up” shares in advance of a short sale to avoid the delay of locating shares when the desired price was reached. (There were some tricks used to try to accomplish this while not telegraphing to professional traders and specialists that short sales were eminent, but we will not attempt a full explanation of these at this time.)
As part of the deregulation which occurred prior to the market crash of 2008-2009, while short sale regulations remained in place, the hard rule of making certain that shares are available at the time the short sale is executed was modified to allow firms to simply act in “good faith” to attempt to locate the shares. As wild flections were occurring in the stock markets during the crash, professional traders often reaped huge profits on short sales. The “good faith” crack in the door for those selling short grew to an open door policy of simply not enforcing this and other short sale rules. While the term “naked shorts” became a part of the culture, this was nevertheless simply deregulation by non-enforcement of the borrowing rule.
There has been no information revealed as to whether the Goldman’s admission of some 400 borrowing rule violations over a 7 week period is indicative of thousands of such violations by Wall Street during the years regulators were looking the other way. However I – for one – would not be shocked to learn that this is a mere “drop in the bucket” of the total borrowing violations which actually occurred. If Goldman claims it is being singled-out on this one, that is likely the truth. However, I quickly learned as a teenager that the defense of “everyone else is doing it” was not going to work with my regulators.