Opinion

The Great Debate

Plutocrat manipulates stock? Old news!

By Richard White
March 11, 2014

On Monday, the New York Times detailed William A. Ackman’s “extraordinary attempt to leverage the corridors of power” in order to to drive down Herbalife stock prices. Ackman, who runs the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has gone short on Herbalife.

He stands to make a great deal of money if the stock price declines — and he is not about to leave its decline to chance. So, the Times reports, Ackman has enlisted congressional representatives to solicit an investigation. He has organized news conferences and letter-writing campaigns. He is trying to make his attack on Herbalife’s stock seem a grassroots, civil rights issue.

The only thing extraordinary about all of this, however, is that the New York Times finds it extraordinary. These are some of the hoariest practices in American capitalism. Indeed, in 1886, Isaac Bromley, who was both a journalist and a lobbyist, accused the Times of being a tool of Wall Street bears in driving down Union Pacific stock. Bulls were using two other papers, the Indicator and the Graphic, to boost the stock.

Charles Francis Adams Jr., the president of Union Pacific, found himself in despair as Congress debated bills in 1886 to investigate his railroad. The railroad had a history of corruption — but that was not the point of the investigation.

Senators had unintentionally, Adams wrote, “been like jumping-jacks under the hidden manipulation of Wall Street influences. Men in Wall Street have pulled the strings and these senators have jumped up on their legs and waved their arms exactly like manikins.” 

As far as the bears were concerned, the investigation helped their short sales. They were only interested in driving down the stock price.

Using Congress to influence the price of securities was a well-honed practice long before 1886. It was a familiar part of Jay Gould’s tool kit. In 1874, Gould’s lobbyists recruited congressmen to introduce legislation that would influence the price of Pacific Steamship stock, a particular favorite of such efforts. They were to share in the proceeds, but Gould betrayed them.

Sometimes, as with Gould, congressmen were corrupt. Sometimes, as in Adams’ example, they were dupes. The results were the same.

But the lessons in all this go well beyond the manipulations of Wall Street. It is a window into how the market and politics constitute each other and have constituted each other for a very long time. Congress is just another arena in which corporations compete.

It is too easy to think that corporations and financiers become involved in politics only to obtain favors from government or to subvert regulation. They use politics to battle each other.

In 1875 Grenville Dodge, in his incarnation as a lobbyist for the Texas and Pacific Railroad in its battle with the Southern Pacific Railroad, pretty much outlined the playbook for using politics to decide corporate struggles. He solicited newspaper stories and provided the “facts” to journalists. He instigated letter-writing campaigns so that his employers’ positions seemed to be those of a congressman’s constituents. He paid to have petitions circulated in key congressional districts.

His operative was ordered not to rest “until he had the name of nearly every voter there on a petition by some pretense or other.” He recruited actual reformers, the Grangers, to denounce the Texas and Pacific’s rival, the Southern Pacific, as a monopoly. It was a monopoly — but that was not Dodge’s concern.

I do not know whether Ackman’s views about Herbalife are correct — but I do have more than a suspicion that the battle to drive down its stock prices is business as usual. The New York Times article that details the story inevitably becomes part of the story.

Financial markets aren’t about reality. They are about information. And for those betting on the rise and fall of stock, it is the short term that matters.

To see all this as an aberration is to misjudge how finance works. And how it has worked for a very long time.

 

PHOTO (TOP): William Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management, speaks at the Partner Connect 2013 conference, sponsored by Thomson Reuters, in Boston, April 5, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A news headline displaying “Herbalife” is seen under the DowJones electronic ticker at Times Square in New York January 9, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Charles Francis Adams Jr. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Grenville Dodge. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

The truth about news, politics and power!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive
 

Excellent article. Excellent.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

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