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The Madoff exemption,... interesting,...

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MAJORXVII   Wednesday, 05/18/11 12:51:12 AM
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The Madoff exemption,... interesting,...

The rule exemption named for Madoff is about halfway down the article...

While the SEC is of no help, most any Wall Street broker can describe several “proprietary” strategies that are popular with unscrupulous hedge funds.

One such strategy is known as a “married put.” Normally, a hedge fund buys from a market maker a certain number of put options—the right to sell a stock at a specified price at a specified date. If on that date the stock has lost value to the point it is below that specified price, the buyer of the put option (the hedge fund) makes money, and the seller (the market maker) loses money. To hedge the risk that he might lose money, the market maker, at the same moment that he sells the put option, also short sells the stock. This is perfectly legal.

But some market markers conspire with hedge funds to drive the stock price down. Instead of merely shorting the shares into the market, the market maker naked short sells the shares, and, importantly, sells those phantom shares to the same hedge fund that bought the puts. As a result, the hedge fund manager winds up with the puts and a matching number of shares (actually phantom shares that are never delivered to him, but about which he never complains, or forces delivery, as that would create upward pressure on the stock, the precise opposite of what he wants). Because the puts and the phantom shares are equal in number and arrive together at the hedge fund, they are known as “married puts”.

Once in possession of the phantom shares, the hedge fund manager proceeds to fire them into the marketplace. But he is able to say that he never naked shorted because all he has done is sold the shares that he bought (wink wink) from the market maker.

Either way, the effect is to flood the marketplace with phantom stock. The hedge fund makes money. And the market maker is rewarded with more business selling married puts.

Incidentally, the fee charged for such puts do not follow any normal option model pricing (in fact, the exchanges search for married puts by looking for options that are mispriced in relation to Black-Scholes, the standard formula that prices options). That is because their pricing is not really a function of any math or statistics, but is a function of the willingness of the hedge fund to pay the option market maker to help him break the rules against naked short selling. And that willingness is a function of how difficult it is for the hedge fund to use other loopholes to break those rules.

In the slang of Wall Street, these married puts are known as “bullets.” Through their maneuverings, the option market maker and hedge fund manager synthesize a naked short position that puts “bullets” into the hands of the hedge fund. The hedge fund fires those “bullets” at the stock to make it collapse, timing the last “bullet” to fire as the hedge fund’s put option expires profitably. If the option position nears expiration and looks like it will expire at a loss (“out of the money”), the hedge fund manager goes back to the option market maker, and together they reload by synthesizing more “bullets.”

Until recently, this behavior flourished owing to a rule called the “options market maker exemption” which is said to have been enacted thanks partly to the pleadings of a “prominent” market maker and investor named Bernard Madoff, who had considerable influence at the SEC. Madoff also obtained an exemption allowing market makers to sell short on a down-tick. The SEC was so grateful for his help in this regard that the commission named the new rule the “Madoff Exemption.” This was before Mr. Madoff became famous for orchestrating a $50 billion Ponzi scheme with help from the Mafia (CNBC’s Charles Gasparino has reported that Madoff might be tied to the Russian Mafia; whistleblower Harry Markopolis stated in Congressional hearings that Madoff appeared to have ties to the Russian Mafia and Latin American drug gangs; and Deep Capture’s own investigations suggest that Madoff did business with multiple people with ties to both Russian and Italian organized crime).

The options market maker exemption permitted market makers (e.g. Madoff) to sell stock that they did not possess, so long as they were doing so temporarily to “maintain liquidity.” Abusing that exemption in order to facilitate naked short selling in cahoots with hedge funds looking to drive down stock prices was blatantly illegal, but the SEC looked the other way, even as market makers failed to deliver shares for weeks, months, and even years at a time. If anyone raised a fuss, the hedge funds would say that the phantom shares didn’t originate with them, the SEC would say that stock manipulation is hard to prove, and the market makers would say that they weren’t breaking any rules.

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