• Jeff Matthews

When CEOs Obsess

Overstock.com is a high-flying company whose CEO, Patrick Byrne, has a problem with success. His problem, specifically, is that the success of his company has attracted short-sellers of Overstock.com’s stock.

While I do short stocks occasionally as part of my investment strategy, I am not one of the short-sellers Mr. Byrne–actually, Doctor Byrne–goes after on his earnings calls and in his erudite shareholder letters. The shorts he goes after are so-called “naked” shorts, meaning they have not actually borrowed the shares of Overstock which they have sold short.

Not only is naked selling short illegal, it is, from my vantage point: a) stupid; and b) not the way any professional short sellers I know go about their business.

So I think Doctor Byrne is identifying a problem that doesn’t exist. And if it does exist in the case of Overstock.com, then those so-called naked shorts, whoever they are, will eventually have to buy back the shares of Overstock they have shorted–a good thing for the Doctor and other shareholders of Overstock, should they ever need an exit strategy. He should be thanking the idiots doing the illegal deed–not obsessing about them.

Why write about Overstock without having a dog in this fight? Simple: I have found in my 25 years’ investment experience a very high correlation between companies whose CEOs obsess about short-sellers and the eventual self-destruction of those companies.

CEOs who obsess about a non-operating issue such as short-sellers usually have a very fragile business model–otherwise, they would not waste a second of their time on such useless speculation. Or they simply have something to hide–sometimes fraud, sometimes not. In general, what comes to mind when CEOs obsess about shorts are the words of Queen Gertrude–from Shakespeare, with whose work I’m sure Doc Byrne is very familiar: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

And Patrick Bryne protests way too much.

Bill Gates, as one example of a CEO whose stock has, in the past, been heavily shorted, never bothered to get worked up about any short-seller on any Microsoft conference call, ever: he just ran the business and let the stock take care of itself, and take care of the shorts along the way. In fact, when I am short a stock, I get very nervous if the CEO does not obsess about the shorts. It usually means he’s playing a very strong hand.

But don’t try to tell this to Patrick Byrne, because today he’s whining to Floyd Norris in the New York Times that “someone is manipulating our stock,” and blaming the shorts for the recent 15-point drop following an earnings call that disappointed investors expecting positive surprises. (Bryne does not, by the same token, thank the shorts for facilitating the 60-point rise in the prior twelve months, nor does he grasp the fact that he and he alone is to blame for raising ridiculous expectations and then failing to meet those expectations during the company’s earnings call.)

Speaking of that call, you should listen to it. The whole replay. Especially the last twenty minutes, when Doctor Byrne fields a call from a man identifying himself as Bob O’Brien. “The name is not familiar,” O’Brien says to Byrne, “let me start out by introducing myself.”

The “not familiar” Bob O’Brien then delivers a paranoid and wholly ignorant fantasy regarding the supposed short-selling conspiracy driving Overstock and other small cap companies into the ground, including factual errors regarding the mechanics of stock delivery and ramblings of an individual with far too much time on his hands and who probably has a difficulty distinguishing reality from The X-files.

You will hear Doctor Byrne patiently let the man ramble, expressing surpise and interest in the caller’s fantasy, and you will hear Doctor Byrne act wholly ignorant of where this Mr. O’Brien came from. “I don’t know any of the stuff you are talking about but it is interesting stuff,” Bryne says.

Patently false.

Turns out Patrick Byrne helped an organization called “National Coalition Against Naked Short Selling” pay for two Washington Post ads attacking naked short sale tactics. Turns out this so-called coalition is run by none other than the paranoid X-Filian Bob O’Brien.

But don’t take my word for it. It’s all there in the interviews Byrne and O’Brien give to Floyd Norris in today’s New York Times. Read the article and listen to the Overstock conference call, and tell me what you think.

If a CEO will fib to Wall Street the way Patrick Byrne appears to be fibbing on his earnings call by hosting an orchestrated short-bashing rant from his “not familiar” friend Bob O’Brien, you never know what he might do when it comes to running a business.

I am not making this up.

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GENERAL

The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice. It should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

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