Cross posted on Huffington Post
Sometimes the ways of Washington, DC are truly baffling.
In the U.S. Senate this morning a hedge fund manager gave testimony to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on a set of higher education companies.
The only problem is that the witness, financier Steven Eisman of FrontPoint Partners, stands to profit not from the success of higher education but from stock price declines of a specific group of companies in that sector. Eisman is a short-seller.
Most Americans would think investors lose money when stock prices go down. But a specific type of investor known as a short-seller makes money when stock prices go down, not up. Ain't America great? The companies go through the grinder, cut employees and investment while some guy on Wall Street gets rich.
The Securities and Exchange Commission explains short-selling this way:
A short sale is generally the sale of a stock you do not own (or that you will borrow for delivery). Short sellers believe the price of the stock will fall, or are seeking to hedge against potential price volatility in securities that they own. If the price of the stock drops, short sellers buy the stock at the lower price and make a profit.
This is exactly what Steven Esiman is doing right now, according to reports. While he is free to invest how he sees fit, the U.S. Senate HELP Committee shouldn't set the stage to help him cheer declining stock prices. Neither should any other part of the U.S government.
Eisman is best known from his role in author Michael Lewis' book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine for short-selling practices that helped crash the mortgage securities market. Bets against subprime mortgages helped FrontPoint double its hedge fund to $1.5 billion by the end of 2007. Eisman made his billions off of the crashed dreams of millions of homeowners. When he spotted housing trends he didn't blow the whistle -- he figured out how to get rich when it crashed.
Now Eisman is setting his sights on companies in the higher education sector -- often technical training schools like Devry or ITT Technical. This isn't just speculation about Eisman short selling higher education stocks. He has said it himself. During a May 26, 2010 speech at a hedge fund conference in Manhattan, Eisman promoted increased federal regulation of higher education as a means to assure that stock prices of higher education companies would fall by as much as 60 percent.
Get that? Steven Eisman wants the regulation of higher education to get rich -- not because it will be good for students or the schools. And now this hedge fund manager is leveraging a U.S. Senate hearing to take more short-selling profits.
A short-seller investor will always have a conflict of interest when speaking about a set of companies and that is why it is inappropriate to invite Eisman as an expert witness. He will typically always want to portray those companies in a bad light in order to generate news that would drive down their stock prices. His financial conflict of interest biases his testimony beyond redemption.
Could the committee possibly expect unbiased testimony? No. Eisman has staked a fortune on government action against higher education companies.
Worse than the conflict is that the entire Senate hearing plays into Eisman's strategy of creating a giant circus about higher education companies. The bigger the circus, the lower the stock price and the more money Eisman makes. The U.S. Senate shouldn't have a leading role in a Wall Street investor's "gambling" strategy -- especially a short-seller.
The threat a short seller represents to companies isn't false. The ginned-up threat of regulation or the suggestion of legislation has already been driving down the stock prices of these companies.
After all that has happened with the financial crisis and the role that short-sellers played in dragging big companies down into the muck you'd hope the U.S. Senate wouldn't play this role. But it is going on today.
It is an imperfect analogy but inviting Steven Eisman to a HELP Committee hearing on a sector he is short selling is like asking an arsonist whether a building will burn down. He'll say, "Yes" but that is because he plans to burn it down.
It is critical that the American people can trust that Wall Street hedge fund speculators and stock short sellers won't manipulate their elected representatives. They've caused enough damage to our economy already. No more Steven Eismans.
Is Richard Shelby's move to place a "blanket hold" on 70+ nominees just so he could get a little extra pork for his state the straw that breaks the filibuster's back? Let's hope so, because the Senate is broken and unable to get anything done.
Calls for Senate reform peaked over the weekend after Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., put a "blanket hold" on more than 70 Obama nominees, not out of principled opposition, but because two projects in his home state of Alabama weren't getting enough attention. [Update, Feb. 9: Shelby lifted most of his holds late Monday.]
This, for Senate-reform advocates, was the last straw. "The genie is out of the bottle with this abuse of Senate rules," wrote FireDogLake's Jon Walker. "I congratulate Shelby on fully exploring the logic of the modern United States Senate," remarked Matthew Yglesias. "Why, after all, should a great nation of 300 million people have a functioning government if preventing the government from functioning can help a lone Senator advance parochial interests?" "America is not yet lost," Paul Krugman reassured. "But the Senate is working on it."
Complaints about Senate procedure tend to focus on two tools: The filibuster, which many liberals hold responsible for the failure (so far) of health care reform, and the "hold," which allows a single senator to stall a president's nominee. Both mechanisms are outdated, say critics. Filibusters used to be rare, with roughly 8 percent of major bills getting blocked in the 1960s. Now, the rate is 70 percent.
It's not just the startling numbers that speak to the filibuster's abuse - it's real, substantive legislation that's being held up. The House passed Cap and Trade to address climate change. The House passed healthcare with a public option. The House passed financial reform legislation. But, it's all stymied in the Senate thanks to the abused filibuster. The filibuster also makes abuse of the "hold" possible as well. Newsweek explains the abuse:
Now that Barack Obama is in office, holds are running at a ridiculous rate. During George W. Bush's first 17 months in office 100 judicial nominees were confirmed, versus nine in Obama's first nine months, in part because of an inordinate number of single-senator holds on his nominees.
The American people are demanding action on a host of issues. The House is taking action. The President is calling, begging and pleading for action. But, because of just one thing - the abused filibuster in the U.S. Senate - little is getting done.