While the vast majority of companies that trade on the public market are scrupulous, there are certainly a few rotten apples in the bunch, and history is littered with companies that have taken advantage of investors. Though Equities has previously highlighted the more nebulously improper act of insider trading, we thought in light of accusations that NQ Mobile is an outright fraud it might be interesting to cover some of history's most famous total stock ripoffs.
While the penny stock and “pink sheet” markets have seen their fair share of petty thieves peddle their worthless securities, even the big leagues of investing aren’t immune to scammers, pump-and-dumpers, and just complete scam artists.
Here are some of the most high profile cases of American stock manipulation:
RCA and “The Radio Pool”
It’s weird to think about a time when a phonograph manufacturer was a cutting edge tech company, but that’s exactly what manufacturer RCA was in the Jazz Age. As the company’s share price soared in the late 20s quickly became the darling of Wall Street. It was, in many ways, the first hot tech stock.
Unfortunately, it shared with hot tech stocks the unfortunate tendency to crash. In this case though, the company’s bubble and subsequent deflation was greatly exacerbated by the “Radio Pool” – a group of investors who coordinated share purchases to artificially pump the stock’s price.
The pump sent shares to an absolutely astronomical $549 a share in 1929. Of course, it didn’t stay there for long. Concomitant with the stock market crash that October, shares of RCA plummeted to under $10 a share. While RCA stayed in business, and continued to be a leader in radio for decades, its stock wouldn’t return to its 1929 valuation until the mid 60s.
Thousands of average investors were ruined in the RCA crash. Interestingly, the collusion scheme the Radio Pool engaged in was at the time wholly legal, though it would inspire much tighter legislation that outlawed the practice.
ZZZZ Best Inc.
Before Mark Zuckerberg, the 80s had their own teenage wunderkind who was supposed to revolutionize an industry. Unlike Zuckerberg, ZZZZZ Best Inc’s Barry Minkow was an utter and complete fraud. Promising to become the “General Motors of carpet cleaning,” Minkow took the company public in January 1986. He forged thousands of documents to validate its worth, and eventually pumped a completely worthless company into a $280 million valuation in February 1987.
Why anyone on God’s green earth thought a carpet cleaning business, no matter how savvy or revolutionary, could become worth so much in so little time is a testament to the power of hype. Minkow’s house of cards collapsed rather quickly. In July researchers began to uncover the accounting fraud and short the company, and the stock plummeted from $18 to $3.50 a share. The company declared bankruptcy soon thereafter, and Minkow went to the pokey for seven and a half years. He would return in 2011 after releasing false information about a homebuilding company in a libel-and-extortion scheme.
Prior to the tech bubble of 2000, a little company called Centennial Technologies had a little “pop and crash” of its own. Falsely reporting that the company had made millions off their Flash memory cards, the company’s shares soared in 1996, touching $55 a share.
There was, however, a problem. Revenue derived from Centennial Flash cards wasn’t in the millions, it was actually a little closer to… zero. The stock lost two-thirds of its value as Wall Street became wary of this former golden child. Suspicions reached a crescendo in Feb. 1997 when the CEO was fired by the board, and the stock failed to trade on the market that day.
An investigation would later reveal the company’s reported $12 million profit over from April 1994 to October 1996 was actually a $28 million loss. Shares would fall to under $3 a share before the company finally went completely belly up.
Satyam Computer Services
Though it doesn’t get nearly the press of its Houston-based counterpart, “India’s Enron” was nevertheless one of the greatest frauds ever perpetuated on a major economic market.
Satyam was purported to be the market leader in India’s fast-growing IT sector, which supplied outsourced tech support to thousands of Western companies. While moderately successful, Satyam overstated their financial health by whopping margins, going as far as to fabricate $1 billion in free cash flow. Shares on the NYSE eventually touched $29 a share in 2008.
Satyam was able to take advantage of India’s outdated corporate governance laws, which made it easier for a company of Satyam’s size to obfuscate shady dealings. But when pressure mounted to prove the company’s revenues were accurate, the lie could not stand up any longer.
The ruse all came crumbling in 2009, when CEO Ramalinga Raja admitted they had falsified documents. The company’s shares fell to $1.80, and thousands of investors were ruined.