Overstock (NASDAQ:OSTK) is a noteworthy name on the stock market these days, not for good or bad performance, but for the sheer weirdness of the news that seems to come out of the company — particularly the C-Suite. Whether it’s claiming that Overstock is now a blockchain company and that its retail business would be sold off by February or claiming that the blockchain (with Overstock’s help) can solve poverty, CEO Patrick Byrne has a history of announcements and headlines that make investors stand up and say “huh?”
But the weirdness, at least for OSTK itself, may finally be coming to an end. For the first time in Overstock history, Patrick Byrne is no longer at the helm. The always-interesting CEO stepped down last week, amid his own statements about the Deep State and revelations of an affair with a Russian agent.
So at this point, what is Overstock? And how did it get here? It’s always been one of those names, like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) or Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) that’s difficult to separate from its CEO. Can OSTK go on, and even thrive, without Byrne in charge?
First, though, here are some memorable events from the history of Overstock and Patrick Byrne.
Patrick Byrne Before Overstock (1962-1999)
America loves a story of someone starting from nothing, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming incredibly successful.
Patrick Byrne does not have one of those stories.
Patrick Byrne came from anything but humble beginnings. His father is John J. Byrne, a friend of Warren Buffet and was CEO of GEICO when Buffet made his original investment. He grew up with not just his father, but Buffett himself as a mentor who he still refers to as his Rabbi.
In his twenties, Byrne also battled testicular cancer three separate times and earned his Ph.D from Stanford. Byrne and his two brothers started a number of business ventures bankrolled by their father, often buying struggling real estate and selling it for a profit.
When Byrne was just 36, Buffett appointed him temporary CEO of Fechheimer Brothers, a Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A,NYSE:BRK.B) company. He had a 18-month tenure there that included both making sweeping changes to infrastructure and challenging union leaders to a fistfight. Shockingly, no one chose to fistfight the CEO and personal friend of Warren Buffet and instead gave in.
The Origins of Overstock (1999-2004)
In 1999, Patrick Byrne purchased Deals.com, a company specializing in liquidating excess inventory. The company was renamed and relaunched as Overstock.com. According to Overstock, the New York Times listed the site has having the #1 largest percentage gain in average daily visitors.
The timing for such a venture was perfect. Overstock was ramping up just as the dot-com bubble burst, leaving behind a plethora of companies looking to sell off inventory and office supplies. The company went public in 2002. And by the end of 2004, OSTK was trading in the $60-range, levels it would not see again until the crypto craze of 2017.
Overstock’s Crusade Against Naked Short Selling (2005)
The perpetual problem with massive tech companies is that they often struggle to actually turn a profit. This was the case for Overstock, and in 2005, the OSTK stock price began to reflect that.
Byrne however, blamed other forces.
Overstock sued research firm Gradient Analytics and hedge fund Rocker Partners (later Copper River, which met its end during the 2008 financial crisis). The claim was that the firms had colluded. He believed Gradient was critical of Overstock in its reports so that Rocker could benefit from the price falling.
According to Forbes:
“In a now-infamous August 2005 conference call, [Byrne] ranted about how hedge funds, journalists and regulators were conspiring to push down the company’s stock price under the direction of some faceless menace he called the ‘Sith Lord.'”
In February 2007, Overstock and Byrne filed a $3.5 billion lawsuit against 11 Wall Street giants including Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), Citibank (NYSE:C) and Merrill Lynch. Byrne accused the firms of conspiring against OSTK to drive down prices and engaging in mass amounts of naked short selling (short selling without first borrowing the underlying stock). The suit alleged that sometimes more than the total shares outstanding were subject to naked short selling, while Nasdaq data at the time indicated only about 35% of the float was sold short.
The Results of the Crusade Against Short Selling (2008-20016)
Gradient and Copper River both eventually settled with Overstock. Gradient settled in 2008, paying an undisclosed amount and apologizing for selective pieces of what Overstock alleged. The firm did not retract its characterization of OSTK as a risky investment. Copper River also settled, but admitted no wrongdoing. It settled after the company had gone bankrupt and been liquidated in order to avoid the costs of litigation.
Despite neither admitting full wrongdoing, Byrne issued a note following the Copper River settlement beginning with “the good guys won” and only getting stranger from there. He claimed vindication for his claims due to the exposure and subsequent downfall of Jim Cramer (who is possibly screaming at you from your TV set as you read this) and Elliot Spitzer, who was elected governor of New York after Byrne’s initial claims. Spitzer was brought down by a prostitution scandal that to my knowledge had nothing to do with short selling.
The claims against the brokerages were eventually whittled down to just Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, both of whom eventually settled. A California court did find that there was possibly a case against Goldman Sachs, but that California lacked jurisdiction over the matter. Merrill Lynch did not settle until 2016, but eventually agreed to pay $20 million.
The fight was costly in terms of Overstock leadership. Two directors left the company and Byrne’s own father threatened to resign from the board.
“I think he won the battle but lost the war when it came to naked short-selling,” says Tom Forte, long-time OSTK analyst.
Libel Suit Against Patrick Byrne (2011)
In 2011, a Canadian businessman Altaf Nazerali sued Byrne, his website DeepCapture.com and one of its writers, Mark Mitchell. The suit was over articles that “falsely portrayed Nazerali as a gangster, arms dealer, drug trafficker, financier of al-Qaida and member of the Russian and Italian Mafias.”
Byrne lost the suit and was ordered to pay $1.2 million to the businessman. The ruling noted that Byrne continued to publish false claims against Nazerali after the suit was filed. Byrne decided to go to trial and defend his claims against Nazerali. However, he failed to produce any evidence or witnesses to support them.
The judge stated in his decision:
“Mitchell, Byrne and Deep Capture LLC engaged in a calculated [and] ruthless campaign to inflict as much damage on Mr. Nazerali’s reputation as they could achieve. … It is clear on the evidence that their intention was to conduct a vendetta in which the truth about Mr. Nazerali himself was of no consequence.”
Byrne appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, but his appeal was thrown out in 2018.
Bitcoin and the Blockchain (2013-Present)
From naked short selling and libel, Byrne then shifted his focus to the blockchain and cryptocurrency. Byrne believes strongly in these things. He’s stated both that the blockchain can end poverty and that Bitcoin can help prevent a zombie apocalypse.
To give some explanation of that, Overstock’s Medici Ventures brings property records to the blockchain, which he believes is a major step toward reducing global poverty. (How much of poverty is caused by people taking land owned by others in the 21st century is unclear). In terms of zombies, Byrne believes that decentralizing money from government control can help prevent a collapse of society and eliminate corruption.
Aside from just Medici Ventures, Overstock is heavily immersed in the rise of crypto. Overstock.com was the first major retailer to start accepting bitcoin in late 2013 — a feature he asked dozens of staff to work over their holiday break to implement.
Also key in Overstock’s blockchain ventures is tZERO. TZERO is a vague crypto platform which InvestorPlace’s Josh Enomoto laid out the negatives of last year. To put it simply, the platform is fairly redundant in the world of crypto. To put it a bit longer, in Enomoto’s words:
“Overstock’s tZERO platform claims it will ‘integrate’ with me. What on earth does that mean? If a company can’t explain in human terms what their business is about, run! … Then again, I think Overstock.com’s obfuscation is deliberate. If people knew what tZERO was on about, they’d see that OSTK stock has devolved into a senseless, redundant gamble … Do you want a faster bitcoin? Go buy bitcoin cash. Do you want cheaper transaction fees? Consider litecoin. How about an institutionally-backed crypto? Ripple is your answer.”
So Byrne loves the blockchain and he’s refocused Overstock toward it (the company hasn’t made a profit since). He’s even been looking to unload the retail side of the business, which is the only part of the business to ever make money.
Byrne’s Resignation (2019)
So all this brings us to present day. On Aug. 12, Overstock put out a press release titled: “Overstock.com CEO Comments on Deep State, Withholds Further Comment.” In this statement, Byrne says that he was part of the origins of the investigation of Russia’s interference in U.S. elections. OSTK plunged 35% in response to this release.
Last Thursday on CNN, Byrne claimed the Federal Bureau of Investigation told him to pursue a relationship with Maria Butina, who is now a convicted Russian agent. Former FBI Director James Comey (who was FBI director during the 2016 election) called Byrne’s claims “ridiculous.” Andrew McCabe, deputy FBI director from 2016-2018, told CNN that it was “certainly possible” that he volunteered information about Butina to the FBI. But McCabe said “that his potential cooperation with the FBI … certainly never happened when I was there.”
He also added that telling someone to engage in a romantic relationship with a suspected Russian intelligence agent “is simply not the sort of thing that the FBI does.”
Warren Buffett, Byrne’s Omaha Rabbi who was alluded to in the original press release, does not appear to have commented publicly on the matter.
On the same day Byrne made these claims, he resigned as CEO of Overstock. OSTK climbed almost 10% on the day, but since has fallen more than 20% seemingly over uncertainty about the company’s future without Byrne.
Jonathan Johnson, interim CEO of Overstock, says that he is in no rush to sell off the e-commerce arm of the business but also said of his longtime colleague:
“He was a visionary who put the company together, guided it I think really well for two decades, and built a great team. If I were to wax poetic, Patrick set this ship on the right course, and while there’s a new hand at the tiller, the course isn’t going to change.”
As of this writing, the Regina Borsellino held no positions in the aforementioned securities.