When your strategy is to bet against the market — as it the case for most hedge funds who short sell securities (stocks and bonds) — there are bound be dirty tricks to uncover illicit information on companies or spread false rumors with the hope of manipulating a stock. Thus it will be interesting to see in the weeks and months to come, if the Financial Services Authority — the banking regulatory agency for the UK — can figure out who earlier this week tried to bring down HBOS, which owns Halifax, the UK’s biggest mortgage lender.
HBOS: Malicious traders in the City try to topple the Halifax bank
Christine Seib, From The Times, March 20, 2008
Stock market manipulators yesterday tried to bring down one of Britain’s biggest banks by spreading false rumours through the City.
The Bank of England was forced to issue an unprecedented denial that HBOS was in trouble.
The Financial Services Authority (FSA) said that it would pursue traders guilty of “market abuse” by spreading untrue claims that banks were on the brink of collapse.
The authorities believe that the fear and uncertainty in financial markets are allowing unscrupulous traders to make multimillion-pound profits by whipping up hysteria about the stability of big banks.
Yesterday’s drama began at about 8.30am when rumours started spreading through London’s stock market that HBOS, which owns Halifax, the UK’s biggest mortgage lender, and Bank of Scotland, was about to become another Northern Rock and that it had begged the Bank of England for a multi-billion-pound emergency loan. Within 20 minutes HBOS’s shares had plunged by more than 17 per cent as investors dumped their stakes. An hour later, the Bank of England announced that no bank needed emergency funding, while the FSA issued a statement warning investors to stop spreading false accusations.
It is feared that short-sellers — investors who use falling share prices to make money — were deliberately spooking the market in order to profit from plunging stocks in a practice called trash ’n’ cash.
Rumours that the American investment bank Bear Stearns was short of cash contributed to its near-collapse last week after its lenders were scared into demanding that it repay them immediately.
The warning to speculators came as it emerged that the American financial watchdog was investigating similar activity in the trading of shares of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, another US investment bank heavily exposed to risky American mortgage business.
Andy Hornby, the HBOS chief executive, vehemently denied that the bank needed an emergency loan. He said: “It’s categorically untrue that we’ve approached any central bank for funding.”
Sally Dewar, the FSA’s managing director of wholesale markets, said that a series of “completely unfounded rumours about UK financial institutions in the London market” had been spread over the past few days, usually accompanied by short-selling of the banks’ stocks.
The FSA can listen to office telephone calls and investigate suspicious transactions but has never brought a trash ’n’ cash prosecution.HBOS shares closed 7 per cent down at 446.25p.