Now, WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT WALL STREET FIRMS AND SELLING INSURANCE? They are addicted two it! Bond insurers sold insurance on risky mortgage backed secuties. AIG's financial product unit sold insurance on all kinds of risky bonds. Etc...
Just like selling credit default swaps on toxic debt provided a nice steady stream of insurance premiums based on the assumption of no defaults, options market makers (ie: Goldman Sach) made a nice profit every month selling insurance against sharp swings in the market, based on the assumption of market stability.
In a legitimate free market, every single option market makers would have already gone bankrupt, especially with the volatility over the last two years. Luckily for option market makers, US markets are neither legitimate nor free.
Below are the three ways options market makers manage to stay solvent, despite the flaws inherit in their business model.
1) Market manipulation
Conveniently for options market makers, US regulators have created a market systems with no transparency or accountability, perfect for manipulation. If prices go in a direction they aren't supposed to, causing catastrophic losses, options market makers can take matters into their own hands. In futures markets, this means expanding or shinking open interest (the supply). In stock markets, this means buying or (naked) shorting selling a stock.
Since there is no transparency in US markets, most manipulation is hidden from investors. Even when suspicious activity does show up in published statistic, it is conveniently never investigated, creating a complete lack of accountability.
Here are a two articles showing this blatantly obvious manipulation occurring in US markets.
The New York Times explores the mystery of the stock price and the strike price.
(emphasis mine) [my comment]
May 7, 2006
The Mystery of the Stock Price and the Strike Price
By MARK HULBERT
SO many options traders lose money that they have grown to suspect they are not operating on a level playing field. A recent academic study provides them with some potentially powerful ammunition.
The study, "Stock Price Clustering on Option Expiration Dates," appeared last October in The Journal of Financial Economics. Its authors are Neil D. Pearson and Allen M. Poteshman, both finance professors at the University of Illinois, and Sophie Xiaoyan Ni, a Ph.D. student there. A version is at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract-id=519044.
The researchers focused on unusual trading patterns of stocks when options on them were expiring. They found an increased likelihood that a stock would close on the options expiration day at or very near the strike price of one of its expiring options.
A strike price, of course, is the price at which an option's owner can buy the underlying stock (if the option is a call) or sell the stock (if the option is a put). A stock typically has options with many different strike prices, set at regular intervals — every $5, for example. Options also vary by month of expiration; all of a given month's options expire on the third Friday.
In effect, the researchers found that the closing prices of stocks that have options were not randomly distributed on expiration days, but instead tended to cluster around the strike prices of certain of their options.
Consider how often a stock closes within 12.5 cents of one of its option's strike prices. On all days other than the expiration date, the researchers found, this happens about 10.5 percent of the time. But on option expiration days, this frequency jumps a full percentage point, to around 11.5 percent. That suggests that option strike prices are acting like magnets, drawing stock prices toward them. [Stocks gravitate towards the "sweet spot" where most options expire worthless. I wonder who has an incentive to orchestrate that? (answer: option market makers)]
This clustering may not seem a big deal, but the researchers say they are confident that it can't be attributed to chance. And the dollars involved are substantial. Some investors' portfolios will increase in value on the expiration day because of the clustering, while others' portfolios will suffer. The researchers estimate that for the average option expiration day from 1996 through 2002, these portfolio shifts totaled at least $9.1 billion. On an annual basis, this amounts to more than $100 billion. [I absolutely 100% guarrenty that manipulation of stocks has gotten much, much worse since 2002. After all, Wall Street has uniformly moved aggressively towards more risk taking in recent years.]
Could the cause of this clustering have nothing to do with options expiration? The researchers believe not, since they were unable to find a similar pattern among stocks for which no options exist. They also examined what happened to these stocks when and if options began to be traded on them. They found that clustering generally appeared almost immediately in these stocks' trading patterns on expiration days.
This clustering does not automatically mean that these stocks are being manipulated, the researchers say. It could also be caused by straightforward hedging transactions that are regularly undertaken by market makers on options exchanges. Marty Kearney, senior instructor at the Options Institute, the educational arm of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, said he believes that these market makers' hedges cause the bulk of any price clustering on options expiration day.
The study's authors don't disagree that market makers play a large role. But they found that the market makers' activities could not fully explain the clustering. They say it is likely that manipulation is also taking place.
Who would have an incentive to manipulate stocks this way? One group would be those who sell options short, known as option writers. Traders in this group in effect are betting that the options' underlying stocks will rise (in the case of puts they have sold short) or fall (in the case of calls). They could lose big if these stocks move too far in the wrong direction.
You would need to be a very wealthy investor indeed to be able to buy or sell enough shares of a stock to move its price in a given direct ion. But the researchers believe that some would qualify. They focused special attention on a group known as firm proprietary traders, which includes employees of large investment banks who are trading options for those banks' accounts. The researchers argue that these traders would be in a position to manipulate stock prices by selling large numbers of shares whose prices they wanted to keep from rising and by buying other shares whose prices they wanted to support.
The researchers say that it is impossible to identify any particular firm that may have engaged in manipulation because they had access only to aggregate data for firm proprietary traders as a whole. [no transparency]
Even if they did have data for individual firms, it would still be hard to prove that any one of them specifically engaged in deliberate stock manipulation, which would be illegal. Such proof would depend on demonstrating what the firm's traders were intending to do when buying or selling stocks on expiration day. And there is no shortage of plausible explanations that those traders could provide for their behavior.
In an interview, Lawrence E. Harris, a former chief economist at the Securities and Exchange Commission and now a finance professor at the University of Southern California, says the difficulty in proving manipulation is probably an inherent feature of modern markets [Of course it is, the US markets were designed to hide and enable manipulation]. "Because the markets are so complex," he said, "it is relatively easy for traders engaged in manipulation to offer alternative explanations for their behavior that would make it difficult to successfully prosecute them." [US authorities aren't interested in prosecuting anyone, or they would have at least tried.]
Professor Harris nonetheless said that "when presented with the data suggesting manipulation by firm proprietary traders, it's reasonable to expect that the S.E.C. would consider investigating the matter further." The S.E.C. had no comment on the researchers' study. [No accountability]
At least two major lessons can be drawn from the study, according to Professor Harris. First, he said, "there are [self-imposed] limits to what the S.E.C. can do to protect you from the actions of clever traders who arrange their trades to put you at a disadvantage." The second, he said, is this: "Unsophisticated traders should be wary of trading options."
Seeking Alpha reports about how everything is great now.
BUT EVERYTHING IS GREAT NOW! Yes, that's right, it's just 6 weeks later and we are in the midst of an epic rally that has taken the US markets nearly 30% off their lows despite the fact that 3.9M people lost their jobs during those 6 weeks and despite the fact that General Motors (GM) is, in fact, about to file for bankruptcy and despite the fact that there has been no real improvement in the economic data and despite the fact that the Fed, in last week's Beige Book, actually downgraded their outlook for our economy. Yes, happy days are here again and anyone who tells you otherwise is just not a chart guy! Forget the low volume, forget the fact that Goldman Sachs (GS) traded more for their Principal account than the next 14 firms COMBINED - manipulation is OK - everybody's doing it, even the government (which is staffed by former GS people, of course)...
This is insane folks! If a single firm is going to trade 1.4Bn shares a day, you would think they would actually be able to make MORE money than they did. Not to get off topic but what really amazed me about GS's earnings is that they ditched the $1Bn they lost in December and no one seems to care. Last year, their Q1 was Dec, Jan and Feb but this year, as GS transitioned themselves into a bank, their Q1 changed to Jan, Feb and March. Since they were not a bank last Q, they reported Sept, Oct and Nov earnings in their last report and, in between, December was orphaned. I'm sure it was just one of those great accounting coincidences that all their negatives were shoved into December, allowing them to show a $1.66Bn gain for Q1, "blowing away" estimates with $3.39 a share in earnings. Perhaps that's because the people doing the estimates didn't realize they could simply ditch over $1Bn in losses which, if they had been included, would have given GS a 50% miss.
Blogvesting reports on manipulation by options traders.
GEOY : Manipulation by options traders
February 19th, 2009
I've been following GEOY for quite a few months now, and every month on or near options expiration, the stock takes a beating and closes near an option strike price. Numerous academic studies have shown that on options expiration Friday, stock prices tend to close around option strike prices. This does not happen with stocks without options, only with optionable stocks. What is happening is that options traders [ie: option market makers] systematically look for stocks which command a high option premium yet has a low trading volume. The traders proceed to sell a large number of options and collect the option premium (in GEOY's case, I'm referring to call options), and then starting about a week before options expiration, they slowly short the stock downwards to close at or near the strike price. The call options expire worthless, and the traders then cover their shorts while driving up the share price tantalizingly close to the next option strike price, thus luring the next batch of option buyers in for the kill.
If you look at the short interest of GEOY, you'll see that shares short declined dramatically after the successful launch GeoEye-1 last year, with short covering probably responsible for GEOY's spike above $25. Since then, trading volume in GEOY has declined significantly, yet at the same time, there has been considerable bullish attention on the stock among retail investors, and many of these retail investors apparently has opted to buy call options rather than the shares, resulting in a very rich options premium. In the midst of this positive attention, shares short has actually been rising modestly but steadily, probably because the option traders have been unable to completely cover and sterilize their short shares.
The game of retail investors versus institutional traders is a particularly lopsided one. Not only do retail investors have less capital then traders at investment banks, even when they refuse to sell their shares at unreasonable prices, traders can always borrow the shares from the retail investors' very brokers to short. In fact, with ineffectual SEC surveillance, I wouldn't be surprised if there is some naked short selling going on. In other words, the traders can conjure up and infinite supply of phantom shares and the share price will be exactly where they want it, regardless of the opinions of the retail investors.
What can the retail investor do about it? The one thing you can do is to stop buying call options! Buy the shares instead.
2) Coercing government official into helping manipulate market
Sometimes market manipulations alone aren't enough, and prices keep going the wrong way despite the best efforts of option market makers. Now, what do Wall Street firms do when facing catastrophic losses after making risky bets? They go running to the government for a bailout!
Mind you, this doesn't necessarily mean that government officials are cooperating willingly in manipulations efforts. They have probably been quietly told something like, "if stocks/futures are at X on expiration day, Wall Street is facing Y amount of losses. So unless you want all prime brokers to declare bankruptcy at the same time, you better do something about it." In the face of such threats, US officials take action to help manipulate stocks/futures. Below are a couple of examples of official intervention to save option market makers.
Look at the graph below showing daily wheat futures call options and open interest from The Kansas City Board of Trade. The sharp drops on the top chart are option expiration dates. Notice the pattern of option interest rising just before each expiration dates, which shows clear evidence of market manipulation by option sellers.
Before we go into government (USDA) interference, it is helpful to make one thing clear about open interest. The Kansas City Board explains wheat futures.
The Kansas City Board of Trade, established near one of the world's most fertile growing regions, is the largest free market for hard red winter wheat. Prices negotiated at the KCBT are the benchmark for wheat prices around the world.
A "grain call," similar to wheat futures trading as it is known today, was established at the KCBT in 1876. In October 1984 the exchange introduced options on its wheat contract.
WHO USES KCBT WHEAT FUTURES?
Traders in the KCBT wheat pit typically represent interests that handle and process wheat - producers, exporters, millers and bakers - and whose inventories are subject to price change. They use futures contracts to minimize the risk of price change, a procedure called "hedging." [In other words, the seller of wheat futures are supposed to be limited to "producers, exporters, millers and bakers". This is a KEY POINT]
Speculators also are represented in the KCBT wheat pit. They perform the crucial role in any futures market of assuming risk from hedgers. These investors neither own nor plan to own commodities, but hope to profit from price changes in the futures contracts they buy and sell. [In other words, the Speculators are supposed to only be on the long side of wheat futures and don't own any wheat. This is a another KEY POINT]
WHAT FACTORS AFFECT SUPPLY AND DEMAND?
Factors that influence supply and demand for U.S. wheat include crop size and crop conditions in the U.S. and other wheat-producing countries, the level of surplus or shortfall, agricultural and economic policies in the U.S. and abroad, worldwide demand for wheat, domestic flour milling needs and the relative strength of the U.S. dollar. [notice anything here about option expiration affected the supply of wheat? This is a third KEY POINT]
The sellers of wheat futures are supposed to be limited to "producers, exporters, millers and bakers", and the odds of these parties increasing their short position in wheat around option expiration is zero. THERE IS NO LEGITIMATE REASON FOR THE STRONG CORRELATION BETWEEN OPTION EXPERIRATION DATES AND SPIKES IN OPEN INTEREST. NONE. THIS IS MANIPULATION, PURE AND SIMPLE.
Getting back to the USDA manipulation, below is a graph DBA which tracks grain prices. Notice the sharp rise in prices in May. This must have cause panic among option market makers. After all, Wall Street is still expecting deflation.
Option market makers were facing catastrophic loses if wheat prices weren't beaten back down by June's expiration date. To quickly kill the rally, the help of the USDA was enlisted, probably with the usual threats of financial collapse.
So in order to option market makers (ie: Goldman Sach, etc) from their own stupidity, USDA began publishing truly bogus production estimates. Nodder does a good job of questioning USDA wheat numbers.
Monday, 13 July 2009
How Accurate Are The USDA Wheat Numbers?
Friday's USDA wheat production estimates threw up some interesting questions, like exactly how accurate are they for a kick off.
The IGC has global 2009/10 ending stocks almost thirteen and a ha lf million tonnes lower than the USDA's Friday estimate.
That's a pretty big difference is it not? AgResource said Friday that the USDA estimate is 12-16 MMT overstated.
In Russia, the USDA increased their production estimate to 60 MMT, yet SovEcon reduced theirs to 55-60 MMT, meaning that our chums (or is it chumps?) are now going in right at the top end of other analyst's estimates.
For Canada the USDA said 23.5 MMT, yet Agri-Food Canada also released their estimate Friday, coming out with a figure of only 22.1 MMT.
The Buenos Aries Grain Exchange say Argentina will produce only 6 MMT of wheat in 2009, yet the USDA say 9.5 MMT, over 50% more than the local exchange.
[The USDA's estimates were even more insane when open interest was peaking (ie: when grain futures were under attack)]
That potentially leaves the USDA overstating global production by up to 11 MMT this year, in just those three countries alone. Do they know what they are doing? That's another interesting question. How much wheat will Argentina export in 2009/10? Also another interesting question, it depends on what you mean by 2009/10.
Table A from the USDA says 2.5 MMT World Wheat, Flour, and Products Trade
Table B from the USDA says 4.0 MMT Wheat Supply and Disappearance: Selected Exporters
Table A clearly refers to the marketing year running from July 1st 2009 to June 30th 2010. Table B is a bit more vague, when to when in 2009/10 exactly it doesn't say. But it clearly says 9.5 MMT in the production column, so we are clearly talking the coming season. And how are they going to export what they aren't going to produce?
There's more questions than answers here. [With its phony estimates, the USDA is bailing out option market makers from their bad bets]
For another perfect example of government interference in to save option market makers, consider the timing of last year's short selling bans.
The first short selling ban happened during July option expiration week. Its effects can be seen in the chart of the BKX (banking index) below.
The second, much broader short selling ban happened on the day before September option expiration. The chart below of Citibank says it all.
Without the context of bailing out option market makers, these short selling bans seem. Mockthemarket comments on The SEC's Temporary short selling ban.
Friday, September 19, 2008
SEC Temporary Short-Sale Ban Official: Capitulation or Manipulation?
It's official. Chris Cox is insane. He has chosen to follow in the footsteps of the loons at the FSA in London and put in place a temporary ban on short-selling of financials. The ban extends to 799 financial institutions including banks, broker dealers and insurance companies. The FSA's ban on short-selling on financials in the FTSE 100 has caused the mother of all short covering rallies on the FTSE 100, which was up around 8% the last time I checked. I suspect there will be significant dislocations in the US markets as investors scramble to cover shorts. The ban on short-selling offers a few exemptions, most notably to market makers in the stocks and investors who take on short positions due to an options expiration. It doesn't, however, exempt options market makers beyond today's trading day. By the way, did the SEC or the FSA know it was options expiration friday? [of course they knew. Why do you think they were banning short selling in the first place?] You'd think the regulators would have the sense not to impose a rule change of this magnitude effective immediately on a FRIGGIN ' OPTIONS EXPIRATION FRIDAY of quite possibly the most volatile week of trading the market has ever seen.
My predictions are that we do get a huge rally in the market (obviously, futures are already up significantly.) Furthermore, we will get crazy dislocations on specific stocks that have been actively shorted lately. Some financials will be up 50%, 60%, maybe more. This will possibly lead to some extraordinary losses taken in the derivatives market (and derivatives gains by people who were smart enough to anticipate this absurd action.)
3) Government Sanctioned Insider Trading
When the market is constantly moving sharply lower despite the best efforts of both the government and option market makers, option market makers have a third and final way of staying solvent: government sanctioned insider trading.
Webofdebt.com reports that the highly suspicious Bear Stearns out-of-the-money puts.
A put is an option to sell a stock at an agreed-upon price, called the strike price or exercise price, at any time up to an agreed-upon date. The option is priced and bought that day based upon the current stock price, on the presumption that the stock will decline in value. If the stock's price falls below the strike price, the option is "in the money" and the trader has made a profit. Now here's the evidence:
On March 10, 2008, Bear Stearns stock dropped to $70 a share -- a recent low, but not the first time the stock had reached that level in 2008, having also traded there eight weeks earlier. On or before March 10, 2008, requests were made to the Options Exchanges to open a new April series of puts with exercise prices of 20 and 22.5 and a new March series with an exercise price of 25. The March series had only eight days left to expiration, meaning the stock would have to drop by an unlikely $45 a share in eight days for the put-buyers to score. It was a very risky bet, unless the traders knew something the market didn't; and they evidently thought they did, because after the series opened on March 11, 2008, purchases were made of massive volumes of puts controlling millions of shares.
On or before March 13, 2008, another request was made of the Options Exchanges to open additional March and April put series with very low exercise prices, although the March put options would have just five days of trading to expiration. Again the exchanges accommodated the requests and massive amounts of puts were bought. Olagues contends that there is only one plausible explanation for "anyone in his right mind to buy puts with five days of life remaining with strike prices far below the market price": the deal must have already been arranged by March 10 or before.
These facts were in sharp contrast to the story told by officials who testified at congressional hearings on April 4. All witnesses agreed that false rumors had undermined confidence in Bear Stearns, making the company crash despite adequate liquidity just days before. On March 10, 2008, Reuters was citing Bear Stearns sources saying there was no liquidity crisis and no truth to the speculation of liquidity problems. On March 11, the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission himself expressed confidence in its "capital cushion." Even "mad" TV investment guru Jim Cramer was proclaiming that all was well and the viewers should hold on. On March 12, official assurances continued. Olagues writes:
"The fact that the requests were made on March 10 or earlier that those new series be opened and those requests were accommodated together with the subsequent massive open positions in those newly opened series is conclusive proof that there were some who knew about the collapse in advance . . . . This was no case of a sudden development on the 13 or 14th, where things changed dramatically making it such that they needed a bail-out immediately. The collapse was anticipated and prepared for. . . .
"Apparently it is claimed that some people have the ability to start false rumors about Bear Stearns' and other banks' liquidity, which then starts a 'run on the bank.' These rumor mongers allegedly were able to influence companies like Goldman Sachs to terminate doing business with Bear Stearns, notwithstanding that Goldman et al. believed that Bear Stearns balance sheet was in good shape. . . . The idea that rumors caused a 'run on the bank' at Bear Stearns is 100% ridiculous. Perhaps that's the reason why every witness was so guarded and hesitant and looked so mighty strained in answering questions . . . .
"To prove the case of illegal insider trading, all the Feds have to do is ask a few questions of the persons who bought puts on Bear Stearns or shorted stock during the week before March 17, 2008 and before. All the records are easily available. If they bought puts or shorted stock, just ask them why."
There is only one reason the government never investigate this absolutely obvious insider trader: they already knew about it and approved it to offset losses which Wall Street firms were racking up, especially in options.
Even though I have used them in the past, options have always struck me as insane, ever since I first heard the sales pitch for using them. While the "limited downside and unlimited upside" is appealing, but I always wondered, "who in their right mind would sell these things?" After all, options are a zero sum game: the potential for "unlimited upside" also means the potential for "unlimited downside" for the other party. Well, the sellers of options are overwhelmingly markets makers like Goldman Sach, and, given the amount of market manipulation that has been necessary to keep them solvent, I was right about options being dangerous.