This is one scandal the National Enquirer has not reported. No babies with mystery fathers, no former vice presidential candidates cowering in a hotel basement to escape the paparazzi.
This scandal, relegated to the business pages if covered at all, is un-juicy compared to l’affaire Edwards, with a wife betrayed, children humiliated, hypocrisy exposed–it is a small wonder, after the ethical hemming and hawing, that the big-time publishers and broadcasters jumped in to take part in the fun.
Yet, entertainment value aside, the Edwards scandal directly affected almost nobody but the Edwards family and a few disillusioned followers. The Bear Stearns scandal continues to affect tens of thousands of people in all sorts of ways.
As the story lacked prurient interest, it was left to Bloomberg.com to unearth persuasive information that the Wall Street firm was seemingly brought down by a conspiracy that netted its participants a profit of upwards of $250 million on an investment of $1.7 million in a week or so. Nice work, if you can get it.
The putative conspirators, whose name or names have not been made public, pulled off their heist with ease. They bought a bunch of what Wall Street calls “puts.” A put is a piece of paper guaranteeing its owner the right to sell 100 shares of stock at a stated price within a specified period of time. In the case of this bank job, the period of time was as little as five days.
With Bear Stearns stock selling at over $60 a share, somebody bought the right to sell almost 6 million shares at $30 a share. To make money on these puts, the price of Bear Stearns stock would have to lose more than half its value fast. In fact, in the days immediately after the unknown person or persons bought all those puts, Bears Stearns stock dropped like a duck shot out of the sky, to a price of $10 a share or less. The persons behind the scheme then bought Bear Stearns shares at $10 or less and exercised the puts, thereby selling them for $30 and pocketing the difference.
How could someone know that in a matter of days the fifth-largest trading house on Wall Street would see the value of its stock drop to next to nothing?
“Even if I were the most bearish man on earth, I can’t imagine buying puts 50 percent below the price with just over a week to expiration,” says Thomas Haugh, general partner of Chicago-based options trading firm PTI Securities & Futures LP, cited by Gary Matsumoto of Bloomberg. “It’s not even on the page of rational behavior, unless you know something.”
Then with the price of stock still above $50, somebody bought puts giving them the right to sell the stock at five dollars a share–which is about what you would expect to be the price of the shares of a company in bankruptcy. Matsumoto quotes one broker as saying, “When you buy $5 strikes [puts] when the stock is trading over $50, you either have to be manipulating, or you have to have insider information.” Another broker quoted in his report remarked, “Nobody in their right mind would buy that put unless you knew what was going down.”
The timing of the purchase of the puts screams out that a well-placed person inside Bear Stearns was telling someone on the outside of the firm’s increasing confusion and division. At a crucial moment when rumors were rife on Wall Street that Bear Stearns customers would not be able to withdraw their money, the stock market was hit by a large number of orders to sell Bear Stearns stock. That augmented the force of the rumors of insolvency already working to depress the price, even as panicky customers fell over one another getting their money out. There are too many disastrous coincidences here to be explained just by bad luck.
The name of the bearer of this bad luck remains hidden. A spokeswoman for the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, where the puts were bought, has refused to tell Bloomberg the name.
We know the name of the mother of the baby John Edwards did or did not sire, but we are in the dark as to who may have authored the scheme that cost thousands of people their jobs and their savings and that gave the financial markets a major kick down the mountain, a fall that will continue to take millions of us with them.