I’ve been going over Regulation T (Reg T; you can see it in its full glory here), which is the SEC rule that governs margin loans, as well as the NYSE margin rules for margin accounts. And if I were designing regulations to increase stock fraud, I could think of no better way to do it.
Why is this? The margin requirements for short selling stocks are greater than for buying stocks, at least for cheap stocks (below $2.50 in value). Here is how it works for stocks above $5. You will note the nice symmetry between short and long margin requirements. While the margin requirement for buying stocks is 50%, the requirement for short-selling stocks is 150%. Here’s an example: if I buy a stock for $10 per share (let’s say 100 shares), I only need to put up $500, or half the total value of the stock. If I want to sell the same stock short, I need to put up $500 (plus the $1000 in proceeds from the sale of the borrowed stock). So there is symmetry between short and long margin requirements. (Investopedia has an in-depth explanation of this). If the price of a stock is below $5, there is no margin allowed on either long or short sales. So if I want to buy 100 shares of a stock at $3, I must have $300 in cash (or margin from a higher-priced stock). If I want to short sell the same stock I would likewise need the same amount of cash or margin available.
The symmetry between long and short breaks down, however, with stocks under $2.50 per share. The NYSE has a rule (rule 431 (c) 2) that requires $2.50 in cash or margin for every stock below $2.50 per share sold short. A comparable rule does not exist for long positions. So if I want to buy 1000 shares of a penny stock trading at $0.40, I need $400 in cash or margin ability from marginable stocks. But if I want to short 1000 shares of a $0.40 stock I need $2,500 in cash or margin. So any time someone shorts a stock under $2.50, they have negative leverage: the position value ($400) is but a fraction of the money needed to hold the position ($2,500). For this reason, very few short sellers sell short cheap stocks. Fraudulent companies or worthless shell companies trade at absurd valuations because their share prices are too low to attract short sellers.
Most of the financial fraud in public companies nowadays is with penny stocks. The reason is because short sellers cannot afford to sell short cheap stocks. If the NYSE $2.50 rule were eliminated, more short sellers would be willing to take short positions in overvalued penny stocks. Pump and dump scams would not be as effective because short sellers like myself would easily be able to short sell the pumped-up stocks earlier, at cheaper prices, reducing the harm to the poor rubes who fall for such scams.
Removing the $2.50 rule would increase the amount of information available about penny stocks as short sellers like myself would write critically about the overvalued stocks they sold short. This would give the poor rubes a chance to learn the truth about the worthless stock they were considering buying and this would further reduce the success of pump and dump scams.
Please, contact the NYSE and urge them to stop supporting scammers and fraudsters. Urge them to remove the $2.50 requirement.
Disclosure: I love short-selling penny stocks.