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How P&G Plunge Derailed One Investor

Stocks in this article: PGMSDTVCATBAC

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Meet Mike McCarthy , the man who got flash crashed.

In a tragic twist of fate, McCarthy's broker happened to hit the button on a market order to sell his 738 shares of Procter & Gamble (PG) at roughly 2:46 p.m. on May 6. That order was filled at $39.37, not only the lowest price in roughly seven years, but also a dramatic difference from the $60-to-$63 P&G had traded at only moments before and after McCarthy's trade.

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
Mike McCarthy's stock sale receipt from Morgan Stanley-Smith Barney.

Procter & Gamble has characterized the sudden jolt in its stock price as an unwarranted "aberration." Spokeswoman Jennifer Chelune noted P&G's "solid" fundamentals and operational results, as well as its stock performance since the trading blip.

"There was a short period of time last Thursday afternoon when our stock appears to have been impacted by trading aberrations, but we ended both Thursday and Friday ahead of the broader market averages," says Chelune.

Indeed, P&G's sudden plunge and recovery was part of a broad market sell-off that at one point erased $1 trillion worth of market value on May 6. The rout began with worries about Europe's debt woes, and was then apparently fueled by heightened volatility, stock-related derivatives and fast-paced Wall Street technology that left individual retail traders in the dust.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Schapiro has called the wild swings "unacceptable" and pledged to investigate further. Stock exchanges canceled thousands of trades -- including some related to a stock that bounced from over $40 to a penny, and ended the day back above $40. But P&G -- a Fortune 500 company and Dow component whose market value and ownership eclipses many of the canceled names -- was left out of the mix.

For his part, McCarthy is left wondering how he got caught at the center of the chaos that unfolded on May 6.

The Trade

As the market began to toss and turn that day, McCarthy became antsy. He called his broker at Morgan Stanley's (MS) Smith Barney division, and asked her to sell some of his P&G shares.

McCarthy made that first call around 2 p.m. Eastern time, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down a few hundred points. But as stocks became even more volatile -- with the Dow tumbling nearly 1,000 points at one point, then recovering half that value within minutes -- McCarthy called his broker a few more times, in increasing stages of panic. Ultimately, he asked her to liquidate his entire stock portfolio.

"I said, 'I'm concerned about the market and I'd like to sell my positions in P&G and DirecTV (DTV),'" McCarthy recalls. "'And on second thought, liquidate the other 10, too.'"

The broker, Mary Serber, followed his orders and, according to McCarthy, sold the stocks in alphabetical order, from Caterpillar (CAT) down to T. Rowe Price (TROW). According to Bloomberg data, Serber must have sold his Procter & Gamble position at around 2:46 p.m..

Had he called her a few minutes later, or had she executed the trade a few minutes earlier, McCarthy could have netted an additional $15,000 to $17,000. Since receiving his Smith Barney confirmation receipt, McCarthy has complained to Serber and her boss, Rick Goldenberg, as well as the exchanges and regulators. But so far he's come up empty-handed.

"That's like six-to-eight months of my mortgage payments right there," says McCarthy. "I'm looking at P&G - it's at, like, 62 now. I can't even believe this happened; it's like I'm in the twilight zone."

Who's Responsible?

McCarthy's situation highlights the dangers for individual investors. His tiny trade got slammed between giant trading blocks of over 100,000 shares that garnered 53% to 59% more value. All told, if he had waited less than a day, McCarthy could have netted $19,000 more on his sale of a dozen stocks.

What's even more disturbing is that none of those charged with maintaining an orderly market -- from the broker who executed the trade to the exchange that facilitated it, to the SEC, which is charged with protecting it -- was able to ensure that McCarthy's order would be matched with a reasonable price, or explain why it wasn't. It's not even clear who's to blame for the rogue deal: McCarthy for his panic-driven selling; the mysterious, opportunistic buyer; the parties down the line of the transaction; or some combination of them all.

McCarthy maintains that Serber ought to have executed the transactions in the order he requested: P&G, DirectTV, and then the rest. If she had followed his instructions more precisely, he believes, it would have avoided the rock-bottom P&G deal. But the brokerage told him his trades were a foregone conclusion, with no post-mortem recourse available. The NYSE, which McCarthy also contacted, directed him back to his broker.

Wanting to hear the day's events from her point of view, I called Serber, who put me on hold, then returned to say that a branch manager would return my call to answer questions instead. In the meantime, I contacted Morgan Stanley-Smith Barney's press department. The firm wouldn't comment on specific transactions, but responded generally to the events of May 6.

"What happened on Thursday was a Street-wide issue," said spokeswoman Christine Pollack. "That said, we are cooperating with the exchanges and regulators as they review this event and, consistent with our usual procedures, will also review any client concerns arising from trade executions."

McCarthy also contacted the SEC and FINRA, a regulator that operates independently of the government, to find out what other actions could be taken. Bryan Burke, an investor assistance specialist at the SEC, sent McCarthy an e-mail on Friday. Burke said the SEC had contacted the brokerage's compliance department, and a response could be expected within two-to-three weeks.

"While our efforts to facilitate informal resolutions of complaints often succeed, we cannot compel a broker-dealer to resolve investor complaints to the investor's satisfaction," Burke warned. He added that the SEC "cannot act as your personal representative or attorney," although McCarthy may pursue legal action on his own.

Chip MacDonald, a banking lawyer at Jones Day, says the best advice is caveat ponens: Investor beware.

"The problem is trying as an individual investor, trading into a fast market like that, the ants get stomped by elephants," says MacDonald. "What it goes to show is never react in a panic. When you try to avoid a loss like that in a panic, you take a risk. The broker's got to follow the customer's directions. If they don't, they have the opposite risk. And suppose the broker didn't execute the trade and the market continued going down? The customer always knows best until they don't."

Ant vs. Elephant

Several top-guns testified before Congress last week about the so-called "flash-crash" of May 6: Schapiro, Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, Nasdaq (NDAQ) Executive Vice President Eric Noll and NYSE Euronext (NYSE) Chief Operating Officer Larry Leibowitz.

All four acknowledged that what happened that day was kind of a big deal. The key takeaways from their testimony: Nothing went wrong with exchange systems, volatility was exacerbated by derivatives, and everyone agrees that the situation needs further examination and some kind of market or regulatory reforms.

However, none of them gave a precise answer as to why the market suddenly plunged, or what can be done to prevent it from happening again. Initial reports that someone with a "fat finger" slipped and executed an erroneous trade were downplayed. Terrorists didn't have anything to do with it, nor did hackers, according to evidence uncovered so far. (There was no mention of pirates or stock demons.)

I contacted Nasdaq, the exchange on which many of the abnormal trades -- including McCarthy's -- occurred, to get a better explanation. Spokesman Wayne Lee directed me back to Noll's testimony . I contacted the SEC, but spokesman John Nester did the same regarding Schapiro's testimony .

Ultimately, exchanges agreed to cancel any trades that occurred between 2:40 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., whose price was 60% away from adjoining trades. Nasdaq broke nearly 10,500 trades related to 236 securities, ranging from small-cap stocks to an ETF that allows investors to short Dow 30 components like P&G.

Unfortunately for McCarthy, the $39.37 price he received was preceded by a $62.59 price, and followed by a $60.21 price - a 37% drop, followed by a 53% climb. it wasn't enough to match the seemingly arbitrary 60% benchmark set by the exchanges.

P&G is more widely held than most of the stocks whose trades were extinguished -- by individuals, pension funds and mutual funds alike. And the P&G market value that evaporated during that brief moment of time could probably buy out many of the firms whose trades were extinguished.

When asked how the 60% benchmark was chosen, NYSE spokesman Ray Pellecchia said all the exchanges deemed it to be a fair variance, though the reasoning still isn't clear. The decision "cannot be appealed," the Nasdaq said in its press release.

"It's a Dow 30 stock that's widely held, but not one where the stock traded beyond that 60% level," NYSE spokesman Pellecchia said, referring to McCarthy's P&G misfortune. "That investor just did that trade and that trade's not going to be canceled."

A String of Bad Luck

McCarthy, a 49-year-old former executive in the auto and mortgage industries, is no financial novice, and no stranger to bad luck. His résumé tracks an ominous string of disaster, both industrially and geographically.

A Michigan native who now lives in Southern California with his wife and three children, McCarthy has seen two major American industries crumble first-hand. He spent 23 years at General Motors, starting at its insurance division in 1983. He moved through sales, marketing and service, up to his last role as general manager of ditech.com, an online mortgage broker that sat within GM's financial arm.

McCarthy moved from Michigan to California in 2000 to take over the site's operations. Its founder had resigned amid a flood of controversy when three top managers were indicted on federal extortion charges. McCarthy worked to restore order in the division, as well as quality-control and regulatory compliance, while also keeping an eye on performance. During his six-year tenure, ditech.com originated over $75 billion in mortgages and became one of GMAC's most profitable arenas - that is, until the subprime edifice began to show cracks.

McCarthy left Ditech in 2006, just ahead of the housing market's utter implosion, and a couple years ahead of GM's bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he left one sinking ship for another: Countrywide Financial.

McCarthy joined the mortgage lender as managing director of new customer acquisitions, just as Countrywide was about to stop seeking new customers. He spent less than a year at the firm, which was teetering under the weight of souring subprime debt. By the time Bank of America (BAC) rescued Countrywide with a buyout announcement in 2008, McCarthy was long gone.

Still jobless, McCarthy has tried to get back on his feet by starting up a company called We Save Homes. It offers a technology platform that banks can use for home-loan modifications and short sales. Though there's no shortage of such transactions in the depleted housing markets that surround him in Southern California, the business hasn't had much luck.

Adding to his grief, McCarthy's mother died last year. She bequeathed to him a trust, which included the Procter & Gamble stock. The related interest and dividends have helped his family make ends meet.

So there it is: The unemployed father of three who lives in one of the hardest-hit residential markets of the country, after leaving one of the most blighted industrial cities where he grew up. The guy who just lost his mother, and whose financial lifeline just happened to get caught in one of the most infamous trading abnormalities in recent history. It's almost hard to believe.

After speaking with TheStreet on Wednesday evening, McCarthy warned that he might be hard to reach the following day: He would be going fishing off the coast of Tijuana to get his mind off things.

"It was just what the doctor ordered," McCarthy said upon his return.

He's got a milestone birthday coming up in September -- the big five-oh -- and he's hoping to land a job before then.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.

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