Ban on Short-selling Elbit Imaging

Why Moti Zisser's real estate and medical technology holdings firm appears among the financial giants of Wall Street is a mystery.

Among the 799 companies that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has banned speculators from betting against is one Israeli representative: Moti Zisser's med-tech and real estate company Elbit Imaging.

In a bid to shore up investor confidence in the face of the spiraling market crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily banned all short-selling in the shares of 799 companies. The ban took effect Friday and extends through October 2. The SEC said it might extend the ban, to as many as 30 calendar days in total, if it deems that necessary.

Short-selling is a bet that a stock will drop.

Most of the 799 are finance-sector firms, so the presence of Elbit Imaging is a tad surprising. Bank of America is there, Citigroup is there, the Bank of Carolina Berkshire Bancorp is there, and Elbit Imaging. Moreover, it isn't as though Wall Street's speculators were betting against the Israeli company in droves. Short-selling was rather sparse in its case. The reason could be that Elbit Imaging (formerly known as Elbit Medical Imaging) is defined as a holding company.

The unexpected move could buy enough time to calm the roiling financial markets, with the Bush administration's massive new programs to buy up Wall Street's toxic debt possibly starting to have a salutary effect by then.

But on Wall Street, professional short-sellers said they were being unfairly targeted by the prohibition. And some analysts warned of possible negative consequences, maintaining that banning short-selling could actually distort, not stabilize, unnerved markets.

Indeed, hours after the new ban was announced, some of its details appeared to be a work in progress. The SEC said its staff was recommending exemptions from the ban for trades market professionals make to hedge their investments in stock options or futures.

"I don't think it's going to accomplish what they're after," Jeff Tjornehoj, senior analyst at fund research firm Lipper, told AP. Without short-sellers, he said, investors will have a harder time gauging the true value of a stock.

Most people buy stock for the long run. "Short sellers are useful for throwing water in their face and saying, 'Oh yeah? Think about this,'" Tjornehoj said. Therefore, curbing the practice could inflate the value of some stocks, leading to a painful downward correction later. "Without offering a flip-side to the price-discovery mechanism, I think there's a pressure built up in stock prices that only gets relieved in a great cataclysm," he told AP.

Short-selling involves borrowing a company's shares, selling them, and then buying them to return them to the lender later, when the stock falls. The short-seller pockets the difference in price.

Although the practice can make markets more efficient and bring in more capital, the government argues that it has widened the scope of the recent financial crisis and contributed to the collapsing values of investment and commercial-bank stocks in particular.

Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been denouncing hedge funds and other short sellers they say have swarmed over the limp bodies of venerable investment banks and other big companies. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo likened them to "looters after a hurricane," and his office is investigating a possible conspiracy among short-sellers to spread negative rumors to pound down companies' stock prices.

SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, who with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had met with lawmakers at the Capitol Thursday night, acknowledged that such extraordinary measures would not be necessary in a well-functioning market and said they are only temporary.

The SEC also imposed a new requirement, also temporary, for investment managers to publicly report their new short sales of stocks. Over the summer, the SEC imposed a 30-day emergency ban on "naked" short selling - where sellers don't actually borrow the shares they sell - in the stocks of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and 17 large investment banks. But Friday's ban expanded to all short-selling, and to a much wider universe of companies.

However, investors still have ways to place bearish bets: by trading in options.

The SEC's ban came in concert with Britain's Financial Services Authority, which announced a similar ban there Thursday. Some British politicians had claimed that short-selling was partly responsible for HBOS' abrupt takeover by banking rival Lloyds TSB on Thursday.