Reminiscences of a Stock Operator - Chapter 20

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I myself never spoke to any of the great stock manipulators that the Street still talks about. I don't mean leaders; I mean manipulators. They were all before my time, although when I first came to New York, James R. Keene, greatest of them all, was in his prime. But I was a mere youngster then, exclusively concerned with duplicating, in a reputable broker's office, the success I had enjoyed in the bucket shops of my native city. And, then, too, at the time Keene was busy with the U. S. Steel stocks--his manipulative masterpiece--I had no experience with manipulation, no real knowledge of it or of its value or meaning, and, for that matter, no great need of such knowledge. If I thought about it at all I suppose I must have regarded it as a well-dressed form of thimble-rigging, of which the lowbrow form was such tricks as had been tried on me in the bucket shops. Such talk as I since have heard on the subject has consisted in great part of surmises and suspicions; of guesses rather than intelligent analyses.

More than one man who knew him well has told me that Keene was the boldest and most brilliant operator that ever worked in Wall Street. That is saying a great deal, for there have been some great traders. Their names are now all but forgotten, but nevertheless they were kings in their day-for a day! They were pulled up out of obscurity into the sunlight of financial fame by the ticker tape-and the little paper ribbon didn't prove strong enough to keep them suspended there long enough for them to become historical fixtures. At all events Keene was by all odds the best manipulator of his day-and it was a long and exciting day.

He capitalized his knowledge of the game, his experience as an operator and his talents when he sold his services to the Havemeyer brothers, who wanted him to develop a market for the Sugar stocks. He was broke at the time or he would have continued to trade on his own hook; and he was some plunger! He was successful with Sugar; made the shares trading favourites, and that made them easily vendible. After that, he was asked time and again to take charge of pools. I am told that in these pool operations he never asked or accepted a fee, but paid for his share like the other members of the pool. The market conduct of the stock, of course, was exclusively in his charge. Often there was talk of treachery-on both sides. His feud with the Whitney-Ryan clique arose from such accusations. It is not difficult for a manipulator to be misunderstood by his associates. They don't see his needs as he himself does. I know this from my own experience.

It is a matter of regret that Keene did not leave an accurate record of his greatest exploit-the successful manipulation of the U. S. Steel shares in the spring of 1901. As I understand it, Keene never had an interview with J. P. Morgan about it. Morgan's firm dealt with or through Talbot J. Taylor Co., at whose office Keene made his headquarters. Talbot Taylor was Keene's son-in-law. I am assured that Keene's fee for his work consisted of the pleasure he derived from the work. That he made millions trading in the market he helped to put up that spring is well known. He told a friend of mine that in the course of a few weeks he sold in the open market for the underwriters' syndicate more than seven hundred and fifty thousand shares. Not bad when you consider two things:

That they were new and untried stocks of a corporation whose capitalization was greater than the entire debt of the United States at that time; and second, that men like D. G. Reid, W. B. Leeds, the Moore brothers, Henry Phipps, H. C. Frick and the other Steel magnates also sold hundreds of thousands of shares to the public at the same time in the same market that Keene helped to create.

Of course, general conditions favoured him. Not only actual business but sentiment and his unlimited financial backing made possible his success. What we had was not merely a big bull market but a boom and a state of mind not likely to be seen again. The undigested-securities panic came later, when Steel common, which Keene had marked up to 55 in 1901, sold at 10 in 1903 and at 8-7/8 in 1904.

We can't analyse Keene's manipulative campaigns. His books are not available; the adequately detailed record is nonexistent. For example, it would be interesting to see how he worked in Amalgamated Copper. H. H. Rogers and William Rockefeller had tried to dispose of their surplus stock in the market and had failed. Finally they asked Keene to market their line, and he agreed. Bear in mind that H. H. Rogers was one of the ablest business men of his day in Wall Street and that William Rockefeller was the boldest speculator of the entire Standard Oil coterie. They had practically unlimited resources and vast prestige as well as years of experience in the stock-market game. And yet they had to go to Keene. I mention this to show you that there are some tasks which it requires a specialist to perform. Here was a widely touted stock, sponsored by America's greatest capitalists, that could not be sold except at a great sacrifice of money and prestige. Rogers and Rockefeller were intelligent enough to decide that Keene alone might help them.

Keene began to work at once. He had a bull market to work in and sold two hundred and twenty thousand shares of Amalgamated at around par. After he disposed of the insiders' line the public kept on buying and the price went ten points higher. Indeed the insiders got bullish on the stock they had sold when they saw how eagerly the public was taking it. There was a story that Rogers actually advised Keene to go long of Amalgamated. It is scarcely credible that Rogers meant to unload on Keene. He was too shrewd a man not to know that Keene was no bleating lamb. Keene worked as he always did-that is, doing his big selling on the way down after the big rise. Of course his tactical moves were directed by his needs and by the minor currents that changed from day to day. In the stock market, as in warfare, it is well to keep in mind the difference between strategy and tactics.

One of Keene's confidential men-he is the best fly fisherman I know-told me only the other day that during the Amalgamated campaign Keene would find himself almost out of stock one day-that is, out of the stock he had been forced to take in marking up the price; and on the next day he would buy back thousands of shares. On the day after that, he would sell on balance. Then he would leave the market absolutely alone, to see how it would take care of itself and also to accustom it to do so. When it came to the actual marketing of the line he did what I told you: he sold it on the way down. The trading public is always looking for a rally, and, besides, there is the covering by the shorts.

The man who was closest to Keene during that deal told me that after Keene sold the Rogers-Rockefeller line for something like twenty or twenty-five million dollars in cash Rogers sent him a check for two hundred thousand. This reminds you of the millionaire's wife who gave the Metropolitan Opera House scrub-woman fifty cents reward for finding the one-hundred-thousand-dollar pearl necklace. Keene sent the check back with a polite note saying he was not a stock broker and that he was glad to have been of some service to them. They kept the check and wrote him that they would be glad to work with him again. Shortly after that it was that H. H. Rogers gave Keene the friendly tip to buy Amalgamated at around 130!

A brilliant operator, James R. Keene! His private secretary told me that when the market was going his way Mr. Keene was irascible; and those who knew him say his irascibility was expressed in sardonic phrases that lingered long in the memory of his hearers. But when he was losing he was in the best of humour, a polished man of the world, agreeable, epigrammatic, interesting.

He had in superlative degree the qualities of mind that are associated with successful speculators anywhere. That he did not argue with the tape is plain. He was utterly fearless but never reckless. He could and did turn in a twinkling, if he found he was wrong.

Since his day there have been so many changes in Stock Exchange rules and so much more rigorous enforcement of old rules, so many new taxes on stock sales and profits, and so on, that the game seems different. Devices that Keene could use with skill and profit can no longer be utilised. Also, we are assured, the business morality of Wall Street is on a higher plane. Nevertheless it is fair to say that in any period of our financial history Keene would have been a great manipulator because he was a great stock operator and knew the game of speculation from the ground tip. He achieved what he did because conditions at the time permitted him to do so. He would have been as successful in his undertakings in 1922 as he was in 1901 or in 1876, when he first came to New York from California and made nine million dollars in two years. There are men whose gait is far quicker than the mob's. They are bound to lead-no matter how much the mob changes.

As a matter of fact, the change is by no means as radical as you'd imagine. The rewards are not so great, for it is no longer pioneer work and therefore it is not pioneer's pay. But in certain respects manipulation is easier than it was; in other ways much harder than in Keene's day.

There is no question that advertising is an art, and manipulation is the art of advertising through the medium of the tape. The tape should tell the story the manipulator wishes its readers to see. The truer the story the more convincing it is bound to be, and the more convincing it is the better the advertising is. A manipulator to-day, for instance, has not only to make a stock look strong but also to make it be strong. Manipulation therefore must be based on sound trading principles. That is what made Keene such a marvellous manipulator; he was a consummate trader to begin with.

The word "manipulation" has come to have an ugly sound, It needs an alias. I do not think there is anything so very mysterious or crooked about the process itself when it has for an object the selling of a stock in bulk, provided, of course, that such operations are not accompanied by misrepresentation. There is little question that a manipulator necessarily seeks his buyers among speculators. He turns to men who are looking for big returns on their capital and are therefore willing to run a greater than normal business risk. I can't have much sympathy for the man who, knowing this, nevertheless blames others for his own failure to make easy money. He is a devil of a clever fellow when he wins. But when he loses money the other fellow was a crook; a manipulator! In such moments and from such lips the word connotes the use of marked cards. But this is not so.

Usually the object of manipulation is to develop marketability-that is, the ability to dispose of fair-sized blocks at some price at any time. Of course a pool, by reason of a reversal of general market conditions, may find itself unable to sell except at a sacrifice too great to be pleasing. They then may decide to employ a professional, believing that his skill and experience will enable him to conduct an orderly retreat instead of suffering an appalling rout.

You will notice that I do not speak of manipulation designed to permit considerable accumulation of a stock as cheaply as possible, as, for instance, in buying for control, because this does not happen often nowadays.

When Jay Gould wished to cinch his control of Western Union and decided to buy a big block of the stock, Washington E. Connor, who had not been seen on the. floor of the Stock Exchange for years, suddenly showed up in person at the Western Union post. He began to bid for Western Union. The traders to a man laughed-at his stupidity in thinking them so simple-and they cheerfully sold him all the stock he wanted to buy. It was too raw a trick, to think he could put up the price by acting as though Mr. Gould wanted to buy Western Union. Was that manipulation? I think I can only answer that by saying "No; and yes!"

In the majority of cases the object of manipulation is, as I said, to sell stock to the public at the best possible price. It is not alone a question of selling but of distributing. It is obviously better in every way for a stock to be held by a thousand people than by one man-better for the market in it. So it is not alone the sale at a good price but the character of the distribution that a manipulator must consider.

There is no sense in marking up the price to a very high level if you cannot induce the public to take it off your hands later. Whenever inexperienced manipulators try to unload at the top and fail, old-timers look mighty wise and tell you that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.

Original devils! As a matter of fact, it is well to remember a rule of manipulation, a rule that Keene and his able predecessors well knew. It is this: Stocks are manipulated to the highest point possible and then sold to the public on the way down.

Let me begin at the beginning. Assume that there is some one--an underwriting syndicate or a pool or an individual--that has a block of stock which it is desired to sell at the best price possible. It is a stock duly listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The best place for selling it ought to be the open market, and the best buyer ought to be the general public. The negotiations for the sale are in charge of a man. He- or some present or former associate-has tried to sell the stock on the Stock Exchange and has not succeeded. He is- or soon becomes-sufficiently familiar with stock-market operations to realise that more experience and greater aptitude for the work are needed than he possesses. He knows personally or by hearsay several men who have been successful in their handling of similar deals, and he decides to avail himself of their professional skill. He seeks one of them as he would seek a physician if he were ill or an engineer if he needed that kind of expert.

Suppose he has heard of me as a man who knows the game. Well, I take it that he tries to find out all he can about me. He then arranges for an interview, and in due time calls at my office.

Of course, the chances are that I know about the stock and what it represents. It is my business to know. That is how I make my living. My visitor tells me what he and his associates wish to do, and asks me to undertake the deal.

It is then my turn to talk. I ask for whatever information I deem necessary to give me a clear understanding of what I am asked to undertake. I determine the value and estimate the market possibilities of that stock. That and my reading of current conditions in turn help me to gauge the likelihood of success for the proposed operation.

If my information inclines me to a favourable view I accept the proposition and tell him then and there what my terms will be for my services. If he in turn accepts my terms-the honorarium and the conditions-I begin my work at once.

I generally ask and receive calls on a block of stock. I insist upon graduated calls as the fairest to all concerned. The price of the call begins at a little below the prevailing market price and goes up; say, for example, that I get calls on one hundred thousand shares and the stock is quoted at 40. I begin with a call for some thousands of shares at 35, another at 37, another at 40, and at 45 and 50, and so on up to 75 or 80.

If as the result of my professional work-my manipulation-the price goes up, and if at the highest level there is a good demand for the stock so that I can sell fair-sized blocks of it I of course call the stock. I am making money; but so are my clients making money. This is as it should be. If my skill is what they are paying for they ought to get value. Of course, there are times when a pool may be wound up at a woss, but that is seldom, for I do not undertake the work unless * see my way clear to a profit. This year I was not so fortunate in one or two deals, and I did not make a profit. There are reasons, but that is another story, to be told later- perhaps.

The first step in a bull movement in a stock is to advertise the fact that there is a bull movement on. Sounds silly, doesn't it? Well, think a moment. It isn't as silly as it sounded, is it? The most effective way to advertise what, in effect, are your honourable intentions is to make the stock active and strong. After all is said and done, the greatest publicity agent in the wide world is the ticker, and by far the best advertising medium is the tape. I do not need to put out any literature for my clients. I do not have to inform the daily press as to the value of the stock or to work the financial reviews for notices about the company's prospects. Neither do I have to get a following. I accomplish all these highly desirable things by merely making the stock active. When there is activity there is a synchronous demand for explanations; and that means, of course, that the necessary reasons-for publication-supply themselves without the slightest aid from me.

Activity is all that the floor traders ask. They will buy or sell any stock at any level if only there is a free market for it. They will deal in thousands of shares wherever they see activity, and their aggregate capacity is considerable. It necessarily happens that they constitute the manipulator's first crop of buyers. They will follow you ail the way up and they thus are a great help at all the stages of the operation. I understand that James R. Keene used habitually to employ the most active of the room traders, both to conceal the source of the manipulation and also because he knew that they were by far the best business-spreaders and tip-distributors. He often gave calls to them-verbal calls-above the market, so that they might do some helpful work before they could cash in. He made them earn their profit. To get a professional following I myself have never had to do more than to make a stock active. Traders don't ask for more. It is well, of course, to remember that these professionals on the floor of the Exchange buy stocks with the intention of selling them at a profit. They do not insist on its being a big profit; but it must be a quick profit.

I make the stock active in order to draw the attention of speculators to it, for the reasons I have given. I buy it and I sell it and the traders follow suit. The selling pressure is not apt to be strong where a man has as much speculatively held stock sewed up-in calls-as I insist on having. The buying, therefore, prevails over the selling, and the public follows the lead not so much of the manipulator as of the room traders. It comes in as a buyer. This highly desirable demand I fill-that is, I sell stock on balance. If the demand is what it ought to be it will absorb more than the amount of stock I was compelled to accumulate in the earlier stages of the manipulation; and when this happens I sell the stock short- that is, technically. In other words, I sell more stock than I actually hold. It is perfectly safe for me to do so since I am really selling against my calls. Of course, when the demand from the public slackens, the stock ceases to advance. Then I wait.

Say, then, that the stock has ceased to advance. There comes a weak day. The entire market may develop a reactionary tendency or some sharp-eyed trader my perceive that there are no buying orders to speak of in my stock, and he sells it, and his fellows follow. Whatever the reason may be, my stock starts to go down. Well, I begin to buy it. I give it the support that a stock ought to have if it is in good odour with its own sponsors. And more: I am able to support it without accumulating it-that is, without increasing the amount I shall have to sell later on. Observe that I do this without decreasing my financial resources. Of course what I am really doing is covering stock I sold short at higher prices when the demand from the public or from the traders or from both enabled me to do it. It is always well to make it plain to the traders-and to the public, also-that there is a demand for the stock on the way down. That tends to check both reckless short selling by the professionals and liquidation by frightened holders-which is the selling you usually see when a stock gets weaker and weaker, which in turn is what a stock does when it is not supported. These covering purchases of mine constitute what I call the stabilising process.

As the market broadens I of course sell stock on the way up, but never enough to check the rise. This is in strict accordance with my stabilising plans. It is obvious that the more stock I sell on a reasonable and orderly advance the more I encourage the conservative speculators, who are more numerous than the reckless room traders; and in addition the more support I shall be able to give to the stock on the inevitable weak days. By always being short I always am in a position to support the stock without danger to myself. As a rule I begin my selling at a price that will show me a profit. But I often sell without having a profit, simply to create or to increase what I may call my riskless buying power. My business is not alone to put up the price or to sell a big block of stock for a client but to make money for myself. That is why I do not ask any clients to finance my operations. My fee is contingent upon my success.

Of course what I have described is not my invariable practice. I neither have nor adhere to an inflexible system. I modify my terms and conditions according to circumstances. A stock which it is desired to distribute should be manipulated to the highest possible point and then sold. I repeat this both because it is fundamental and because the public apparently believes that the selling is all done at the top. Sometimes a stock gets waterlogged, as it were; it doesn't go up. That is the time to sell. The price naturally will go down on your selling rather further than you wish, bur you can generally nurse it back. As long as a stock that I am manipulating goes up on my buying I know I am all hunky, and if need be I buy it with confidence and use my own money without fear- precisely as I would any other stock that acts the same way. It is the line of least resistance. You remember my trading theories about that line, don't you? Well, when the price line of least resistance is established I follow it, not because I am manipulating that particular stock at that particular moment but because I am a stock operator at all times.

When my buying does not put the stock up I stop buying and then proceed to sell it down; and that also is exactly what I would do with that same stock if I did not happen to be manipulating it. The principal marketing of the stock, as you know, is done on the way down. It is perfectly astonishing how much stock a man can get rid of on a decline.

I repeat that at no time during the manipulation do I forget to be a stock trader. My problems as a manipulator, after all, are the same that confront me as an operator. All manipulation comes to an end when the manipulator cannot make a stock do what he wants it to do. When the stock you are manipulating doesn't act as it should, quit. Don't argue with the tape. Do not seek to lure the profit back. Quit while the quitting is good-and cheap.

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