CEOs Launch Web Site To Protect Short Sellers

Harvey Pitt, of Kalorama Partners, started with John Tabacco, of, and Tom Ronk, of
Harvey Pitt, of Kalorama Partners, started with John Tabacco, of, and Tom Ronk, of (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg News)
By Christopher Twarowski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

When the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an emergency order last month protecting the stocks of the country's largest financial institutions against a form of short selling, three businessmen saw an opportunity.

Harvey Pitt, SEC chairman from 2001 to 2003 and chief executive of District-based global consulting firm Kalorama Partners, teamed up with John Tabacco, chief executive of, and Tom Ronk, the chief executive of, to launch

The D.C. company operates a Web-based, real-time electronic stock lending and location service that provides tools to help sellers and brokerage firms comply with SEC rules governing naked short selling -- the practice the agency sought to prevent -- and regular short sales of stocks. The Web site matches traders with available stocks that can be borrowed for short sales and offers immediate data on the short-sell market. It is named after the SEC's order regulating such trades, Regulation SHO.

The emergency order required short sellers to borrow shares before initiating a short sale in the stocks of 19 major companies, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, along with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Issued July 15, the order expired Aug. 12, with SEC officials saying they were moving toward introducing a permanent rule that could cover the entire market.

In regular short selling, which is legal and adds liquidity to the market, a short seller borrows securities from a brokerage firm, then sells them, betting that the stock will decline in value. The seller buys the stock back at a later time and returns it to the lender, pocketing a profit if the stock price declined.

In naked short selling, the seller never borrows the shares but continues with the transaction as if he had. This results in fake, or phantom shares, critics say. Since the seller is not constrained by the number of available shares, he can sell an unlimited number of securities that may not even exist. Naked short selling, in large volumes, can depress a company's stock, by creating sustained downward pressure, and ultimately destroy it, driving down the price until the stock is worthless, critics say.

"It is a very serious problem, and it has led to a whole host of additional problems in the marketplace," Pitt said. "It's definitely a vehicle that has and can be used by those who effectively want to push the price of the stock down and do it rapidly."

The SEC order provoked debate. Smaller banks sought coverage and complained that they had become victims of the practice, while hedge fund and investment groups wanted the order rescinded, citing increased costs to complete regular short sales.

Richard H. Baker, president and chief executive of the Managed Funds Association, an advocacy group for hedge funds and futures funds, said member firms had been reporting an increase of more than 200 percent in operational costs associated with short trades in the protected companies.

Longtime critics of naked short selling weren't happy either, saying the order protected the firms and clearinghouses conducting the trades.

The prospect that the SEC might expand the order has spurred more dismay among hedge funds and other short sellers. "An extension to every stock is going to begin to make trading in all securities more cumbersome and more expensive," said James S. Chanos, chairman of Coalition of Private Investment Companies and president of hedge fund Kynikos Associates.

But's executives say their company can help reduce costs because transactions are done electronically and traders never have to take the time to pick up the phone.

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