The governments of Spain, Italy, Belgium and (of course) France recently imposed 15-day bans on “short selling,” which means they are prohibiting people from making investments that would be profitable if certain stocks fall in value.
According to the politicians, the bans are being imposed to protect financial markets from “speculators” who cause “panics” by “betting” in favor of bad news.
But this type of regulatory intervention doesn’t seem very effective, at least if the U.S. and U.K. experiences are any guide. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg report.
British financial stocks dropped 41 percent in the four months after regulators imposed a ban on short selling following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008. The benchmark FTSE 100 index fell 15 percent in the period. When the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibited short-sales for three weeks in September 2008 a Bloomberg Index tracking the 880 U.S. stocks affected fell 26 percent, outpacing the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s 22 percent decline. …“In contrast to the regulators’ hopes, the overall evidence indicates that short-selling bans at best left stock prices unaffected and at worst may have contributed to their decline,” said Alessandro Beber, a professor at Cass Business School in London who’s studied short-sales bans in 30 countries. …“EU policy makers don’t seem to understand the law of unintended consequences,” Jim Chanos, the short seller known for predicting Enron Corp.’s collapse, said by e-mail. “The vast majority of short-selling financial shares is by other financial institutions, hedging their counterparty risks, not speculators. The interbank lending market froze up completely in October to December 2008 — after the short-selling bans.”
Beber’s research (cited in the excerpt above) has been confirmed by other scholars. Simply stated, if investors realize that something is over-valued, it is going to fall in price. Governments can hinder and delay that process, thus increasing volatility and uncertainty, but they can’t stop it.
But here’s a very big reason why these laws are stupid (at least from my amateur perspective*). Most rational people presumably would agree that the housing and financial bubbles of the last decade were a bad thing. But most of us know it was a bad thing because we have 20-20 hindsight.
But what if there were lots of people back in 2005, 2006, and 2007 who recognized a bad thing as it was happening? And what if they had the ability to deflate the bubble (or at least slow its increase) by making investments that assumed housing and finance were heading for a fall?
We could have saved ourselves a lot of economic misery if that was the case. Heck, short sellers probably did save us from a lot of additional economic agony by stopping the bubbles from getting even bigger.
In other words, short sellers are the good guys. To some extent, they put a damper on “irrational exuberance” and therefore reduce the subsequent economic damage.
But don’t believe me. Here are some sage words from Cliff Asness.
…what goes through the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats and what do they say to themselves? Perhaps it’s the following: “What this crisis absolutely requires is that a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part and we’re just the guys to do it.” It was funny when Bluto said it in “Animal House.” …So, they decide to outlaw shorting in a giant number of stocks… Never mind that the short sellers were in many cases the heroes who uncovered much of the ugliness in the financial system that needed uncovering. The government’s actions here will unambiguously hurt our capital markets and economy long-term. …At the risk of restating the obvious, short-sellers play a vital role in any free market. In a world where everyone can only hold long positions, managers have less incentive to work hard, improve stale business models or keep their companies competitive and efficient (sound anything like government bureaucracy?). Short-sellers keep companies, managers and markets honest, and without them the disciplining mechanism is much weaker.
By the way, Asness made those comments back in 2008, and his analysis was confirmed by subsequent events.
Andrew Lilico, meanwhile, is equally astute in his analysis.
Short-sellers make money by identifying situations in which the world is worse than the Market thinks. They expose cases where managements or governments are disorganised or lying or have themselves been deceived. Given the events of the past few years, it would seem very foolish to try to deter people from properly analysing companies or governments to see whether they might actually be less robust than they claim. Surely we want more such analysis, not less! …short-selling (and other forms of speculation) are extremely valuable. They improve market efficiency…and they expose errors made by the management of companies and by governments, early, when those companies and governments might still have a chance to rectify things. Banning short-selling is a classic case of shooting the messenger because one does not like the truth he tells.
The bans on short selling are classic examples of Mitchell’s Law. Politicians do stupid things such as bad monetary policy and corrupt housing subsidies. Those misguided policies cause bubbles that eventually pop. But rather than learn that bad policies are foolish, they use the economic damage as an excuse to implement additional forms of intervention such as short-selling bans. The only constant is that the political class gains more power and control.
* Caveat: I’m only commenting on public policy, not how you should invest your money. I’m only a policy wonk. I know less about financial markets than Barack Obama knows about economics