|FORUM: A monster shunned? By Donn W. Vickrey|
April 15, 2008
In the April 11 opinion piece "Shortchanged," Jonathan Johnson of Overstock.com wrote to express his concerns regarding "naked short selling." While I applaud Mr. Johnson"s dedication to a cause that he feels strongly about, I take issue with one of the basic premises of his thesis. Mr. Johnson argues that the financial press has somehow "short changed" Overstock"s battle with investment banking Goliaths and, therefore, neglected "the interests of increasingly disenfranchised small investors and victim companies." Perhaps Mr. Johnson should pay heed to Nietzsche"s advice that "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."
Given Mr. Johnson"s stated agenda, I find it ironic that his employer, Overstock.com, has a long history of lashing out at critics who dare to express a contrary opinion. Since July 2004, Overstock.com has consistently engaged in what the New York Times described as a "campaign of menace" (Feb. 25, 2006) wherein the Internet retailer has accused a broad assortment of analysts, investors, journalists, politicians, regulators and others in an improbable conspiracy to drive down its share price. For whatever reason, it"s the publishers of contrary viewpoints that have received the harshest treatment from Overstock.com, including a libel suit filed against my firm, an independent research company called Gradient Analytics, and targeted public criticism on more than 20 individual journalists. A half a dozen of those journalists also received SEC subpoenas in regards to Overstock"s "jihad."
The campaign of menace was escalated in late 2005, when Overstock apparently approached another disgruntled issuer, a Canadian drug firm called Biovail Corp., to join in the "jihad." Biovail"s role in the "jihad" is particularly disconcerting in light of a recently filed SEC complaint (March 24, 2008) alleging that "Biovail and [its] senior executives engaged in a pattern of systemic, chronic fraud that impacted its public filings of quarterly and annual reports over the course of four years."
According to Overstock Chairman Patrick Byrne"s own admissions, he "had a hand in" Biovail"s decision to file suit against 27 critics, including Gradient and analysts at Bank of America and Gerson Lehrman, by "sharing his wealth of information" with executives at the Canadian firm (New York Times, Feb. 25, 2006). Unfortunately for those caught in the cross-fire, Biovail"s retaliation has included not only costly litigation but a plethora of other dirty tricks such as hiring private investigators to harass analysts and conduct surveillance on firm principals. Other examples of issuer retaliation include several individuals who posed as potential clients to gain access to the offices of two of Biovail"s critics, the use of a stolen logon ID and password to access a Gradient server from the office of a Biovail attorney (IP address and login activity dutifully documented), and a decidedly slanted "60 Minutes," episode that obscured key facts and attempted to shift the blame from executives whom the SEC now alleges to have committed accounting fraud.
While the price paid by analyst firms is often steep, we must not lose sight of the fact that the most significant damage from issuer retaliation is the adverse impact on the investors who Mr. Johnson and Overstock claim to be advocates for. First, there is the direct impact on investors who are misled when an issuer successfully eliminates dissenting opinions by retaliation against contrarian analysts and journalists. Since filing its vexatious lawsuit in February 2006, Biovail shareholders have lost over half of their investment. Overstock shareholders have faired even worse. Second, there is the indirect impact that occurs when investors lose confidence in a system that strongly discourages analysts and journalists from expressing legitimate concerns.
The SEC has had the problem of issuer retaliation on its agenda now for nearly three years. The last word out of Washington came on Sept. 1, 2005, when SEC Chairman Christopher Cox responded to concerns expressed by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, indicating that the commission was "reviewing this matter and is currently considering several possible solutions for recommendation." A hand written note from the chairman, written at the bottom of the letter, also indicated that, "This is indeed a concern and we will tackle it." Our representatives and regulators must act now to tackle the problem of issuer retaliation before it gets any worse.
As for Mr. Johnson and his employer, if it is truly the small, disenfranchised investor that you are advocating for, please take a look in the mirror. It is only a matter of time before Mr. Hyde once and for all takes over from the good Dr. Jekyll.
Donn W. Vickrey is cofounder and editor-in-chief of Gradient Analytics Inc.