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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Jim Cramer: Insert Foot in Mouth?

Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Mad Money, may have said too much in a recent interview. He is getting quite a bit of attention for his discussion of hedge fund managers manipulating stock prices. From the NY Times:

In the December interview with the site’s “Wall Street Confidential” Webcast, Mr. Cramer describes at least two strategies, including a way of driving stock futures up or down that he explicitly said was legal. “A lot of times when I was short, I would create a level of activity beforehand that would drive the futures. … It’s a fun game,” he told TheStreet.com’s executive editor, Aaron Task.

But Mr. Cramer spends most of the interview describing a practice called “fomenting,” where a hedge fund manager essentially creates a false impression about a company in order to drive its stock one way or another — which he says is “blatantly illegal,” but adds that “the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t understand it.” While he claims this practice is widespread, he never says he has used it himself.

Here’s how fomenting works, according to Mr. Cramer: Say a hedge fund manager is holding a short position — a bet that a stock will decline — in Research in Motion, which has just announced blockbuster quarterly earnings results. An enterprising fund manager might call several brokerage houses and either feed them bad information or order a slew of short sales. Then he or she could call up a “bozo reporter” with a fake news tip about Resarch in Motion rival Palm.

The result, he says, is a perfect storm of bad news that temporarily lowers R.I.M.’s stock price, long enough for the manager to reap a tidy profit. He recommends a similar procedure with Apple (the video was filmed before the company introduced its iPhone at its annual Macworld convention in January).

“These are all the things that you should be doing on a day-to-day basis and if you’re not doing it, maybe you shouldn’t be in the game,” Mr. Cramer tells Mr. Task.

Mr. Cramer sums up his philosophy this way:

What’s important when you are in that hedge fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful, because the truth is so against your view, that it’s important to create a new truth, to develop a fiction.

Whether this turns heads over at the SEC is one question. But whether Cramer breached his contract with CNBC is another. If you watch the video, you'll see that Cramer describes his rumor spreading strategy and names CNBC correspondent Bob Pisani, who reports from the NYSE. There is talk that naming Pisani may have breached a "disparagement clause" in Cramer's employment contract with CNBC. The disparagement clause bars employees from publicly criticizing on-air talent.

[Meredith R. Miller]

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