In the wake of a nice bear rally, the SEC is once again discussing the reinstatement of the uptick rule, or some version of it (see Financial Times article). The rule was abolished in July 2007, but now various politicians are writing to SEC chairwoman, Mary Schapiro, asking that the rule be reinstated in order to produce an “unambiguous commitment to promulgate and enforce regulations that put an end to naked short selling”. Of course, naked short selling is already not allowed. While selling on a down-tick may have facilitated naked short selling, reinstating the uptick rule will not by itself rid the market of naked short-sellers. Enforcement of current rules might actually be the place to start. Until the SEC gets serious about investigating delivery failures, naked short selling will continue, regardless of changes in the uptick rule.

In addition politicians, the largest US exchanges have also recently written to the SEC asking that some version of the rule be put back into place, and further suggest that the new rule only allow short selling to be initiated by posting a quote for a short sale order that is priced more than the prevailing national bid. While such a change seems slightly different from the requirement of selling only on a new plus-tick or previous plus-tick (the current price being the same as the last, which was up), the change is significant. A value higher than the bid can still be below the ask. Not only are the prices lower than a plus tick (which is not that difficult to find for highly liquid stocks, even during a sell-off), selling between the bid and ask also makes the transaction less transparent. To make matters worse, the exchanges don't stop here, but also suggest that as an added precaution (guess for who), that a new type of circuit breaker be used that would initiate the rule only when the stock had a precipitous decline - defined as 10 percent. No more killing a stock in one or two days. Now it will take you at least 10 days. Not sure this is much of an improvement.

As for the motivation of the exchanges, you cannot really blame them for being proactive. While it is essential to keep the hedge funds and other drivers of order flow happy, helping to convince individual investors that it is safe to wade back in the waters will also be good for trading and revenue generation. I am sure that it is also hoped that any collaboration will make it more unlikely that the SEC will temporarily change the rules at a later date, selectively deciding what can and cannot be shorted. As for the SEC, they send the message that the days of the wild-west are over, and politicians get to take credit for putting pressure on the regulators and exchanges to look out for the little guy. Yet the changes will be ineffective at best - since naked short selling is not really directly addressed, and will most likely get worse given that shorting on a price higher than the bid is no improvement at all, but simply helps to mask the underlying transaction.

When I began to see the increased focus recently on finally bringing back the uptick rule, my initial thought was that if the rule was so vital, why has it taken this long to get back on the books? Looking at the latest collaborative effort, a little more delay might be in order.