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The Patrick Byrne Show Distracted From Overstock’s Woes

Joe Nocera

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s kinda, sorta funny, I suppose, that Patrick Byrne resigned Thursday as chief executive of Overstock.com Inc. a week after issuing a bizarre press release bragging about his romantic entanglement with a Russian spy while also being involved with the “deep state” and the “Men in Black.” Just as it’s kinda, sorta funny that President Donald Trump canceled a state visit to Denmark because its prime minister told him she wouldn’t discuss his “absurd” idea of selling Greenland to the U.S.

Except that Byrne (like Trump) has been prone to saying and doing unhinged things since at least the mid-2000s. What’s more, as Bloomberg Opinion’s Barry Ritholtz pointed out Thursday on Twitter, “He was a terrible CEO of a not very good company.”

I began paying attention to Byrne in 2005, six years after he took over an online retailer and renamed it Overstock. That year, he held the looniest  conference call I’ve ever heard. He claimed that there was a vast conspiracy to drive down Overstock’s shares orchestrated by someone he called the “Sith Lord.” He wouldn’t name the Sith Lord, but described him as “one of the master criminals of the 1980s.” He titled the conspiracy “the Miscreants Ball.”(1)

At the same time — and this is what caught my attention — Overstock filed a lawsuit against Gradient Analytics, a research firm, and Rocker Partners, a hedge fund run by David Rocker and Marc Cohodes — yes, the very same Marc Cohodes who was the subject of my columns this week about MiMedx Group Inc. — that specialized in short-selling. Byrne claimed in the lawsuit (as I wrote at the time) “that they were acting in concert to hurt the company and manipulate its stock price.”

It wasn’t long before Byrne was including certain financial journalists in the conspiracy. When a television interviewer asked him if he was accusing Herb Greenberg,(2) the great former MarketWatch reporter, of “helping others front-run” the company’s stock, he replied, “That’s correct.” His “thesis” was that Greenberg was taking orders from Rocker.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Byrne became convinced that an illegal practice called “naked short-selling”(3) was Wall Street’s dirty little secret, and he devoted himself to rooting it out and exposing it. (Barron’s once described naked short-selling, rather aptly, as “the grassy knoll of the equity markets, denounced by crackpots, devotees of penny stocks, and troubled companies eager to divert attention from their failings.”)

Overstock’s director of communications, Judd Bagley, would “friend” Byrne’s critics on Facebook, then publish the names of their friends on a website, especially those friends who could serve as “evidence” of a conspiracy. (I’m one of the journalists this happened to.) Byrne started a conspiracy-minded website called Deep Capture, the purpose of which was to smear his critics, myself included.

If the purpose of all this was to silence us, it worked. I wrote three columns about Byrne, and then moved on. So did most of the other journalists who had once covered him and Overstock. Rocker, the rare short-seller willing to talk to reporters on the record, stopped giving interviews. The journalist (and my friend and former co-author) Bethany McLean once told an interviewer that in effect, Byrne had won, because his tactics had caused his critics to stop writing about him.

Since his Deep Capture days, Byrne has found a different means to distract people from Overstock’s lousy performance: In 2015, he announced the formation of a company that would issue a cryptocurrency called tZero. For a while, at least, it worked. Between July 2017 and January 2018, the Overstock share price went from around $20 to almost $87. But it couldn’t last. With the company’s free cash flow negative $168 million in 2018, and its net income negative $169 million,(4) the stock sank back down to earth, bottoming out at $9.40 a share in June.

Yet when he finally stepped down, it wasn’t because the company was losing money, or because the tZero effort was faltering, or because, as usual, Byrne was too busy with his side ventures to focus on the company he was supposed to be running. It was because he wrote a bonkers press release.

On Thursday evening, Byrne was interviewed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Byrne claimed that FBI agents — including James Comey! — had instructed him to “rekindle” his relationship with the Russian spy, Maria Butina. Later that evening, as Cuomo discussed the interview with another CNN host, Don Lemon, he defended Byrne. “He’s not some lunatic or something like that,” he said.

Clearly, Cuomo should have had a seat on the Overstock board.

(1) Byrne later told me that his Sith Lord conference call was “one of the 10 proudest moments of my life.”

(2) Alas, Greenberg has since left financial journalism and now runs his own investment research firm, Pacific Square Research.

(3) Don’t ask.

(4) According to Bloomberg data.

To contact the author of this story: Joe Nocera at jnocera3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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