Posted by: John Gilmore | September 16, 2006

Anatomy of the Morgan Stanley Panic

If you stop and think about it – Wall St. is a lot like a school of piranhas. Piranhas swim and hunt together – but it is an uneasy alliance. Together – they are a potent killing machine – devouring their prey. The problem (if you happen to be a piranha) is that if you become injured or weakened in some manner – you are transformed from the predator to the prey in the blink of an eye. All of your so-called ‘friends’ – suddenly turn on you – and you are devoured. I imagine that if a fish could think and reason – being a piranha would be a very stressful existence.

The same dynamic has always been present on Wall St. There has been an uneasy alliance among Wall St. investment banks. Remain strong – and you can continue playing the game – chasing after profits in whatever manner you can get away with. The problem is – just like with piranhas – once you show any type of weakness – your ‘friends’ begin circling. Instead of eating you for breakfast like piranhas – they begin scheming. How can we profit from this weakness? Their pursuit of profits – at your expense – weakens you further – until you are out of the game – purchased or bankrupt.

There are now only two major Wall St. investment banks left – Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Bear Stearns was ‘bailed out’ at around $10/share. Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail and file for bankruptcy. Merrill Lynch was bought by Bank of America for a fraction of what they were worth just one year ago. We heard many of the leaders of these institutions cry foul on the way down – because they felt that their Wall St. brethren were accelerating their demise. This was coming from people who focused their entire lives on the pursuit of money – above all else. Should it surprise anyone that other people – just like themselves – would want to profit from their misfortune? This is a prime example of worldly people being surprised at how the world treats them. When you are strong and times are good – come and join the party. When you are in a position of weakness and times are not so good – the world begins to circle you. How can we profit from this person’s (or institution’s) weakness? There is no compassion – no thought to how people are treated – there is only the pursuit of money, power and glory at all costs. Do I need to tell you again where this is coming from?

The world doesn’t care about you – it only cares about what it can gain from you. It wants to profit from your power, your wealth, your beauty – but if you lose these things – then the world casts you aside. How many Hollywood actors have seen their careers vanish? How many Wall St. titans have lost everything? How many corporate leaders have lost their wealth and power? What do worldly people have when their world is taken from them? Nothing – no hope. I’ll say it again – this is why Jesus told us not to build our lives on this world – because it is full of deception and lies – it’s constantly shifting. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out – someone pulls the rug out from under you. If you build your life on God’s promise, however, and live according to His ways – the world may shift – but your life is built on a solid foundation. The world will not move you.

God’s promise does not change – because He does not change. His laws do not change and His character does not change. When you are born again and follow Him – your morals will not change and your faith will not change. This is what Jesus was referring to – a rock solid belief that God has promised us something greater than this fallen world.

What got me thinking about this was Citigroup’s demise last week. Their stock plunged below $5 – and the CEO began speaking about the evils of short selling. Apparently, according to the CEO, Citigroup’s demise has very little to do with the billions of dollars of Level III assets (CDO’s, etc.) – toxic securities on their books – and has everything to do with other institutions and traders ‘shorting’ their stock. Let’s get everyone to forget that Citigroup got greedy (like so many other banks, insurance companies, etc.) and began buying ridiculous securities based on unsustainable mortgages – and focus everyone on the current credit ‘crisis’ and short selling. When is anyone going to tell the truth?

You’ll notice in the article below that Citigroup was one of the largest institutions placing huge bets that Morgan Stanley would fall in September – using credit default swaps and ‘short’ selling. It appears that short selling is A-OK – as long as no one is ‘shorting’ your stock. It amazes me that Wall St. has lasted as long as it has. The problem now is that everyone is injured and trying to stay afloat – while the really big shark circles the carnage.

If you’ve ever wondered what short selling is – here’s a simple example. A short seller ‘borrows’ a share at $50 from someone willing to lend – and sells the share. The stock then declines and the short-seller buys a share at $40. He then returns the borrowed share to the lender and pockets the $10 difference. You can also see why short selling is risky. If the stock rises – the short seller will have to buy the stock at a higher price than he sold it for – resulting in a loss. Last month we watched many hedge funds lose billions because they had ‘shorted’ Volkswagen stock – only to see the stock skyrocket when Porsche announced that it had secretly bought a controlling stake in the company. Short sellers scrambled to buy enough shares to ‘cover’ their positions – driving the stock even higher. It’s easy to see how crazy this is – it’s nothing more than high stakes gambling.

There are two big reasons why banks/companies hate to be a ‘target’ of short sellers. If a large number of people are ‘shorting’ the stock – large numbers of borrowed shares are being sold – which could obviously drive the price lower. The biggest problem is the most obvious one – if many people are ‘shorting’ the stock – it’s probably because there are rumors the firm is in trouble – and people are trying to profit from this. We’ve seen this happen time and again this year. Rumors get started, a panic ensues – and the stock tanks. The firm’s stock decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe the rumors – and start acting on this belief that the firm is in trouble – a somewhat stable stock suddenly becomes highly volatile.

It’s not easy watching our nation destroy itself – because this is exactly what is happening. We are a nation divided politically and financially – and what does the Bible say about a house divided? It will fall.

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25)

jg – Nov 24, 2008
______________________

NOVEMBER 24, 2008

Anatomy of the Morgan Stanley Panic
Trading Records Tell Tale of How Rivals’ Bearish Bets Pounded Stock in September

Two days after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. sought bankruptcy protection, an explosive rumor spread that another big Wall Street firm, Morgan Stanley, was on the brink of failure. The chatter on trading desks that Sept. 17 was that Deutsche Bank AG had yanked a $25 billion credit line to the firm.

That wasn’t true, but it helped trigger a cascade of bearish bets against Morgan Stanley. Chief Executive Officer John Mack complained bitterly that profit-hungry traders were sowing panic. Yet he lacked a critical piece of information: Who exactly was behind those damaging trades?
Trading records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal now provide a partial answer. It turns out that some of the biggest names on Wall Street — Merrill Lynch & Co., Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank and UBS AG — were placing large bets against Morgan Stanley, the records indicate. They did so using complicated financial instruments called credit-default swaps, a form of insurance against losses on loans and bonds.

A close examination by the Journal of that trading also reveals that the swaps played a critical role in magnifying bearish sentiment about Morgan Stanley, in turn prompting traders to bet against the firm’s stock by selling it short. The interplay between swaps trading and short selling accelerated the firm’s downward spiral.
This account was pieced together from the trading documents and more than six dozen interviews with Wall Street executives, traders, brokers, hedge-fund managers, regulators and investigators.

For years, sales of credit-default swaps were a profit gold mine for Wall Street. But ironically, during those tumultuous few days in mid-September, the swaps market turned on Morgan Stanley like a financial Frankenstein. The market became a highly visible barometer of the Panic of 2008, fueling the crisis that ultimately prompted the government to intervene.
Other firms also were trading Morgan Stanley swaps on Sept. 17: Royal Bank of Canada, Swiss Re, and hedge funds including King Street Capital Management LLC and Owl Creek Asset Management LP.

Pressure also mounted on another front. There was a surge in “short sales” — bets against the price of Morgan Stanley’s stock — by large hedge funds including Third Point LLC. By day’s end, Morgan Stanley’s shares were down 24%, fanning fears among regulators that predatory investors were targeting investment banks.

That pattern of trading, which previously had battered securities firms Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman, now is dogging Citigroup, whose stock fell 60% last week to a 16-year low.

Investigators are attempting to unravel what produced the market mayhem in mid-September, and whether Morgan Stanley swaps or shares were traded improperly. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into whether traders manipulated markets by intentionally disseminating false rumors in order to profit on their bets. The investigations also are examining whether traders bought swaps at high prices to spark fear about Morgan Stanley’s stability in order to profit on other trading positions, and whether trading involved bogus price quotes and sham trades, people familiar with the probes say.

No evidence has emerged publicly that any firm trading in Morgan Stanley stock or credit-default swaps did anything wrong. Most of the firms say they purchased the credit-default swaps simply to protect themselves against potential losses on various types of business they were doing with Morgan Stanley. Some say their swap wagers were small, relative to all such trading that was done that day.

Proving that prices of any security have been manipulated is extraordinarily difficult. The swaps market is opaque: Trading is done by phone and email between dealers, without public price quotes.

Erik Sirri, the SEC’s director of trading and markets, contends that the swaps market is vulnerable to manipulation. “Very small trades in a relatively thin market can be used to … suggest that a credit is viewed by the market as weak,” he said in congressional testimony last month. He said the SEC was concerned that swaps trading was triggering bearish bets against stocks.

Morgan Stanley had entered September in pretty good shape. It made money during its first two fiscal quarters, which ended May 31. It didn’t have as much exposure to bad residential-mortgage assets as Lehman did, although it was exposed to commercial-real-estate and leveraged-loan markets. Mr. Mack knew that third-quarter earnings were going to be stronger than expected.

On Sept. 14, as Lehman was preparing to file for bankruptcy protection, Mr. Mack told employees in an internal memo that Morgan Stanley was “uniquely positioned to succeed in this challenging environment.” The following day, the firm picked up some new hedge-fund clients who had fled Lehman.

But rumors were flying as traders worried which Wall Street firm could fall next. The chatter among hedge funds was that Morgan Stanley had $200 billion at risk as a trading partner with American International Group Inc., the big insurer on the brink of a bankruptcy filing, according to traders. That wasn’t true. Morgan reported in an SEC filing that its exposure to AIG was “immaterial.”

Some brokers at rival J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. were suggesting to Morgan Stanley clients it was risky to keep accounts at that firm, people familiar with the matter say. Mr. Mack complained to J.P. Morgan Chief Executive James Dimon, who put an end to the talk, these people say. Deutsche Bank, UBS and Credit Suisse also marketed to Morgan Stanley’s hedge-fund clients, people familiar with the pitches say.

On Sept. 16, Morgan Stanley’s stock fell sharply during the day, although it rebounded late. Some hedge funds yanked assets from the firm, worried that Morgan might follow Lehman into bankruptcy court, potentially tying up client assets. In an effort to quell concerns, Morgan Stanley released its earnings that afternoon at 4:10 p.m., one day early.
Colm Kelleher

“It’s very important to get some sanity back into the market,” said Colm Kelleher, Morgan’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with investors. “Things are frankly getting out of hand, and ridiculous rumors are being repeated.”

UBS analyst Glenn Schorr asked Mr. Kelleher about the soaring cost of buying insurance in the swaps market against a Morgan Stanley debt default. Protection for $10 million of Morgan Stanley debt had risen to $727,900 a year, from $221,000 on September 10, according to CMA DataVision, a pricing service.

“Certain people are focusing on CDS as an excuse to look at the equity,” Mr. Kelleher responded, implying that traders betting on swaps were also shorting Morgan Stanley shares, betting that the stock price would fall.

It’s impossible to know for sure what was motivating buyers of Morgan Stanley credit-default swaps. The swap buyers stood to receive payments if Morgan Stanley defaulted on bonds and loans. Some buyers, no doubt, owned the firm’s debt and were simply trying to protect themselves against defaults.

But swaps were also a good way to speculate for traders who didn’t own the debt. Swap values rise on the fear of default. So traders who believed that fears about Morgan Stanley were likely to intensify could use swaps to try to turn a fast profit.

Amid the uncertainty that Sept. 16, Millennium Partners LP, a hedge fund with $13.5 billion in assets, asked to pull out $800 million of the more than $1 billion of assets it kept at Morgan Stanley, according to people familiar with the withdrawals. Separately, Millennium had also shorted Morgan Stanley’s stock, part of a series of bearish bets on financial firms, said one of these people. In addition, the hedge fund bought “puts,” which gave it the right to sell Morgan shares at a set price in the future.

“Listen, we have to protect our assets,” Israel Englander, Millennium’s head, told a Morgan Stanley executive, according to one person familiar with the conversation. “This is not a personal thing.”

Those bearish bets, small compared to Millennium’s overall size, rose in value as Morgan Stanley shares fell.

That same day, Sept. 16, Third Point LLC, a $5 billion hedge-fund firm run by Daniel Loeb, began to move $500 million in assets out of Morgan Stanley. The following day, Sept. 17, Third Point, after seeing the surge in swaps prices, made a substantial bearish bet, selling short about 100,000 Morgan Stanley shares, trading records indicate. Third Point quickly closed out that position for a profit of less than $10 million, says one person familiar with the trading.
Around the same time, hedge fund Owl Creek began asking to withdraw its assets, and ultimately took out more than $1 billion.

On the morning of Sept. 17, David “Tiger” Williams, head of Williams Trading LLC, which offers trading services to hedge funds, heard from one of his traders that a fund had moved an $800 million trading account from Morgan Stanley to a rival. His trader, who was on the phone with the fund manager who moved the money, asked why. Morgan Stanley was going bankrupt, his client responded.

Pressed for details, the fund manager repeated the rumor about Deutsche Bank yanking a $25 billion credit line. Mr. Williams hit the phones. His market sources told him they thought the rumor false.

But damage already was being done. By 7:10 that morning, a Deutsche Bank trader was quoting a price of $750,000 to buy protection on $10 million of Morgan Stanley debt. At 10 a.m., Citigroup and other dealers were quoting prices of $890,000.

As the rumor about Deutsche spread, Morgan shares fell sharply, from about $26 at 10 a.m. to near $16 at 11:30 a.m.

Before noon, swaps dealers began quoting the cost of insurance on Morgan in “points upfront” — Wall Street lingo for transactions where buyers must pay at least $1 million upfront, plus an annual premium, to insure $10 million of debt. In Morgan Stanley’s case, some dealers were demanding more than $2 million upfront.

During the day, Merrill bought swaps covering $106.2 million in Morgan Stanley debt, according to the trading documents. King Street bought swaps covering $79.3 million; Deutsche Bank, $50.6 million; Swiss Re, $40 million; Owl Creek, $35.5 million; UBS and Citigroup, $35 million each; Royal Bank of Canada, $33 million; and ACM Global Credit, an investment fund operated by AllianceBernstein Holding, $28 million, according to the documents.

The following day, Sept. 18, some of those same names were back in the market. Merrill bought protection on another $43 million of Morgan Stanley debt; Royal Bank of Canada, $36 million; King Street, $30.7 million; and Citigroup, $20.7 million, the trading records indicate.
None of the firms will comment on how much they paid for the swaps, or whether they profited on the trades.

“The protection we bought was a simple hedge, not based on any negative view of Morgan Stanley,” says John Meyers, a spokesman for AllianceBernstein. A Royal Bank of Canada spokesman says the bank bought the swaps to manage its Morgan Stanley “credit risk,” and was not “betting against Morgan Stanley and conducted no bearish trades on its stock.”
King Street, a $16.5 billion hedge fund, bought the swaps to hedge its exposure to Morgan Stanley, which included bond holdings, according to a person familiar with the fund. The fund didn’t hold a short position in the stock, this person says.

Spokespeople for Deutsche Bank and Citigroup say their trading was relatively small and meant to protect against losses on other investments with Morgan, and to handle client orders. An Owl Creek spokesman says it bought the swaps “to insure collateral we had at Morgan Stanley at the time,” and that it continues to do business with the firm.

Merrill, UBS and Swiss Re declined to comment on the trading.

As Morgan Stanley’s stock tumbled, the number of shares sold short by bearish investors soared to 39 million on Sept. 17, nine times the daily average this year, adding to the 31 million shares shorted in the prior two days, according to trading records.

Mr. Mack sent a memo to employees on Sept. 17. “I know all of you are watching our stock price today, and so am I.… We’re in the midst of a market controlled by fear and rumors, and short sellers are driving our stock down.”

The stock and swaps trading were feeding on each other. That afternoon, Mr. Schorr, the UBS analyst, wrote: “Stop the insanity — we need a time out.” In an interview that day, he said “the negative feedback loop of stocks and CDS making each other crazy shouldn’t be able to destroy the value of companies.”

Scrambling to stop the crisis of confidence, Mr. Mack phoned Paul Calello, investment-banking chief at Credit Suisse, and asked whether he knew what was driving the cost of the swaps up so quickly, say people familiar with the call. Mr. Calello said he didn’t.

Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer, Gary Lynch, once the SEC’s enforcement chief, called New York Stock Exchange regulatory head Richard Ketchum. He said he was suspicious about manipulation of Morgan Stanley securities, and asked whether the NYSE would support a temporary ban on short selling, according to people familiar with the call.

Mr. Mack called SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and others. Trading in Morgan Stanley securities, he groused, was irrational and “outrageous,” and “there’s nothing to warrant this kind of reaction,” says a person familiar with the calls. The steps already taken by the SEC to prevent certain types of abusive short selling, he argued, didn’t go far enough.

In his memo to employees that day, Mr. Mack had made it clear that he intended to press regulators to rein in short sellers. When word about that got out, hedge-fund managers were up in arms. Some yanked business from Morgan Stanley, moving it to rivals including Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and J.P. Morgan. They said the trading represented legitimate protection and speculation.

Hedge-fund veteran Julian Robertson Jr. and James Chanos, a well-known short seller, both longtime Morgan Stanley clients, were both angry. Mr. Chanos says he “hit the roof” when he heard about Mr. Mack’s memo.

After the stock market closed that day, Mr. Chanos decided that his hedge fund, Kynikos Associates, would pull more than $1 billion of its money from a Morgan Stanley account.
“It’s one thing to complain, but another to put out a memo blaming your clients,” says Mr. Chanos, who adds that the development all but ended a more-than-20-year relationship with Morgan Stanley. He says his fund hadn’t bought any Morgan Stanley swaps or sold short its stock.

Other Wall Street executives, concerned about their stocks, were also calling regulators. At about 8:15 that night, the SEC said it would require more disclosure of short selling. Late the following day, Sept. 18, the SEC moved to temporarily ban short selling in financial stocks.
Mr. Mack contacted hedge-fund clients to tell them he hadn’t single-handedly brought on the ban, and that he was primarily interested in giving the market a temporary “time out” from the volatile mix of rumors and trading.

But within days, more than three-quarters of Morgan Stanley’s roughly 1,100 hedge-fund clients had put in requests to pull some or all of their assets from the firm, according to a person familiar with the operation. Even though most kept some money at the firm, Morgan Stanley couldn’t process all the withdrawal requests at once, adding to market fear.

Morgan Stanley was in a precarious position. During the Sept. 17 trading frenzy, Mr. Mack had begun merger talks with Wachovia Corp. Four days later, Morgan Stanley shifted course, becoming a bank-holding company and gaining wider access to government funds. Last month, after raising $9 billion from a Japanese bank, it received a $10 billion capital injection from the federal government.

Morgan Stanley must now revise its business strategy to contend with a more risk-averse environment and the more stringent government oversight that comes with being a bank-holding company. Earlier this month, it announced it would fire about 2,300, or 5%, of its employees.

The cost of insuring its debt has come back down from its peak, but its stock remains in the doldrums. On Friday, it was trading at $10.05 a share in 4 p.m. composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange — less than half of the $21.75 close on Sept. 17.

A month after the mayhem, Mr. Mack said in an interview that he had all but given up trying to get to the bottom of what was driving the trading in his firm’s securities during those chaotic days in mid-September. “It’s difficult to say what’s rumor and what’s fact,” he said.

Write to Susan Pulliam at susan.pulliam@wsj.com, Liz Rappaport at liz.rappaport@wsj.com, Aaron Lucchetti at aaron.lucchetti@wsj.com and Jenny Strasburg at jenny.strasburg@wsj.com

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