Truth, the flexibility of facts, and market panics | FT Alphaville

Truth, the flexibility of facts, and market panics

Phone rings…

FT Alphaville: Hello, Murphy

Morgan Stanley PR: Hi, this is XXXXX from MS. Have you seen the information on Bloomberg? Mr Mack did NOT say these things. And I’m just calling to get your post on this taken down, so can you take it down?

FTAV: No. We’ve noted the Mack denial – published snaps from Reuters. We will link to that and make denial clear. But the post stays up.

MS felt: You can’t believe the stuff that’s going around. People are just making things up…

FT AV: So what does the NYT say?

MS felt: Oh, that’s being dealt with by our NY people. I’m just ringing round getting stuff taken down…

Who knows whether the Mack comment, published by one of the most respected media titles on the planet, is true? We don’t and we’d guess the MS felt it is not 100 per cent sure either. We are not saying he is lying. We are just saying that in these febrile times “facts” take on a malleable form.

If you are John Mack and your stock’s in freefall, and you’re weighing what you might say to save your bank and what you might have to confess at the Pearly Gates – well, the bank wins and heaven can wait.

As it happens, on this occasion, forced to guess, we’d go with Mack; these are stressful days for reporters as well as financiers.

But there’s a more enduring issue here: lying to the financial media has become routine in recent years, encouraged by the tightening noose of market regulation. In short, answering media enquiries accurately can often constitute a breach of the market abuse regime. The truth quite literally becomes a criminal matter – and the result is a growth in speculative news reports.

All of which makes the following all the more intriguing.

On Tuesday, officials from HBOS contacted this newsblog and various other news organisations to state very clearly that there was no reason for the run on HBOS stock. The bank was well capitalised and continued to enjoy access to the capital markets.

The FSA, no less, followed up with a statement of its own:

FSA statement re: HBOS

Since the beginning of the current extreme difficulties in the financial markets, the Financial Services Authority has worked intensively with all major UK banks to ensure they have credible capital and liquidity plans. We are satisfied that HBOS is a well- capitalised bank that continues to fund its business in a satisfactory way.

But as the razor-sharp Guido Fawkes blog notes, according to the BBC the Chancellor of the Exchequer believes he and his colleagues had been on to the problems at HBOS for several weeks:

Alistair Darling added that without the deal the outlook was “very bleak indeed…We were onto their (HBOS’s) problem for several weeks. It didn’t just suddenly happen…”

If the authorities can’t follow their own rules, why should anyone else?

Related link:
12:42 17-Sep-08 FT Alphaville statement re possible offer for FSA – FT Alphaville