Federal regulators on Tuesday extended through mid-August a temporary order banning a certain kind of short-selling of the stocks of mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and 17 large investment banks.
The Securities and Exchange Commission said the ban on so-called "naked" short selling will be in effect until 11:59 p.m. EDT on Aug. 12 and will not be extended.
Short sellers make a bet that a stock's price will fall so that they can profit from it. They borrow shares of the stock and sell them. If the price drops, they buy cheaper actual shares to cover the borrowed ones, pocketing the difference.
"Naked" short selling occurs when sellers don't even borrow the shares before selling them, and then look to cover positions immediately after the sale. The SEC order requires short sellers to actually borrow shares before selling them.
SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said the order was also helping prevent potential "distort and short" manipulation of stocks, which occurs when rumors and misinformation are used to drive down the price of a stock that has been sold short.
"In addition to continuing the existing order against naked short selling, the commission will continue exploring other remedies for the broader marketplace to further protect investors from 'distort and short' artists," Cox said in a statement.
The SEC said that extending the restrictions on short selling will allow regulators more time to collect and analyze data on the order's impact and effectiveness.
After ban runs out, regulators will move to draw up formal rules to provide additional protections against abusive naked short selling in the broader market, while allowing legitimate short selling, the SEC said.
Advocates for smaller banks and investment firms have been urging the SEC to expand the ban on naked short selling to cover additional financial companies.
Analysts and government regulators blamed aggressive short selling for exacerbating the recent plunge in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's stock, as well as that of big investment house Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
The SEC initially announced the emergency order on July 15 after a perilous slide in shares of Fannie and Freddie, the government-sponsored companies that together hold or guarantee more than $5 trillion in home mortgages _ nearly half the U.S. total.
The regulators' move followed a 13 percent drop in the price of Fannie shares and a 22 percent plunge in Freddie's on July 10, when a news report said the government had begun contingency planning in the event the companies failed. The next day, Freddie shares plummeted 33 percent at one point and Fannie stock lost 29 percent of its value.