a short guide to short selling

Short selling sounds sexy. Uncovering accounting fraud or identifying companies promoting faddish products or services can be exciting. But short selling is often an unprofitable and frustrating activity, best left to institutional investors. Most ‘professional’ short sellers have produced awful results. The $110M AUM Federated Prudent Bear fund is down 75 percent over the last 18 years. The $186M AUM Grizzly short fund is down 90 percent since 2000. And famous New York short seller Jim Chanos’ Kynikos short fund has reportedly turned $1 into a dime since its inception.

The population of dedicated short sellers has steadily declined during my three decades in money management. Most, if not all, delivered disappointing performance, lost assets, and closed shop. Some claim that, despite losing money, they generated ‘alpha’ because their funds declined less than the indexes advanced. This is like bragging about finishing second-to-last in a game of Russian roulette where there are five bullets in a six shooter. You may have lasted longer than the average participant, but you are still dead.

Today, many managers are shorting index funds and ETFs to claim their funds are market neutral. Why do they do this? To justify charging a performance fee without doing the intensive research required to identify and profit from winning short investments. Because the best short ideas almost always have market capitalizations below $200M—and have minimal trading liquidity—asset managers with excessive AUM cannot make meaningful short bets in troubled, often low priced stocks where the risk-reward ratio is on the side of short sellers.

Given the difficulty and risks, individual investors are advised to avoid shorting. But identifying stocks that are likely to decline—possibly to zero—can provide insights into stocks all investors should avoid owning. Simply put, the best stocks to short are the worst stocks to buy. This might seem like a blatantly obvious statement, but folks consistently buy stocks they would be better off shorting and short stocks they’d be better off buying. Here are a few reasons why this happens:

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three ‘uninvestable’ industries for 2017

The “Trump Bump” will soon come to an end, and earnings will once again drive stocks higher or lower. Bulls think 2017 S&P operating earnings could hit $130 per share. Who knows if this happens? Even in times of relative stability, it’s foolish to predict the markets—and probably the only thing everyone can agree on these days is that our current situation is far from stable. There are too many variables, including uncertainties about the policies President-elect Trump will put forward, to have any clue where the market will wind up at year’s end. Will Trump succeed in cutting the corporate tax rate or start a crippling trade war with China? Will he “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act or throw the whole healthcare sector into chaos? Your guess is as good as mine, and anybody who claims to know is probably a partisan hack or a salesperson, or both.

One thing we can be sure of is that, as always, a handful of big movers will disproportionately impact the indexes in 2017. Last year Nvidia was that stock. I wish I knew what this year’s breakout name will be, but all I can offer with some certainty is that even if the indexes post another year of low double-digit increases, more stocks will struggle than flourish. Quite a few businesses could vanish altogether. Avoiding these laggards and soon-to-be zeroes is just as important to investing success as scouting for potential five or ten baggers. And one of the best ways to do so is to identify larger secular trends.

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will the trump rally cost us in the long run?

Stocks have soared ever since Donald Trump stunned everyone by winning the presidency, but Trump’s victory was far from a landslide mandate. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 2.6M votes. This marks the fifth time a president has won the electoral college but lost the popular vote—and Trump’s popular vote deficit was much larger than the previous four times this election outcome occurred.

But before Democrats claim a moral victory, they would be wise to examine the congressional tally. According to the Wall Street Journal, Republicans won 3M more House votes than Democrats. That means a staggering 5.5M voters picked Clinton and then voted for a Republican congressional candidate—which not only speaks volumes to Trump’s personal unpopularity, but to the rightward drift of white voters.

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taking stock of trump’s triumph

Donald Trump’s stunning victory blindsided investors and media pundits alike—not to mention part-time finance bloggers like myself. Last week, I all but guaranteed a Clinton victory, and predicted that it would probably lead to slower earnings growth for health care and energy companies, as well as continued anemic economic growth for the country as a whole.

So much for all that.

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the one election-proof industry

After one of the longest, weirdest, and most exhausting election seasons in our history, we are only six days away from (finally) choosing a new president. As importantly, 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats are up for grabs.

Investors are justifiably nervous about the outcome. Yesterday’s selloff was probably a symptom of that unease. Betting markets currently predict Hillary Clinton has a 70-75 percent chance of winning. I suspect her odds are much better. Four years ago Obama’s five million vote victory was fueled by a 56 to 44 percent majority of female voters and an even greater 74 to 26 percent majority of Hispanic voters. I am 99 percent certain Trump will do worse with both groups. Ever since he announced his candidacy Republican leaders (and media talking heads) have known that women and Hispanics would be his Achilles heel and yet, shockingly, he has made no effort to improve his appeal to these voters. Either he is delusional about his chances or simply refuses to learn the daunting math required for a Republican to win the general election.

The Donald’s only hope is the fact middle-of-the-road voters seem to dislike Hillary almost as much as they dislike him.

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headline risk is still poison for these stocks

Stock picking is hard. Most institutional and retail stock pickers underperform the indexes. But every investor could improve the likelihood they beat the market by following one rule:

Avoid high profile, controversial companies where an adverse news event could produce an overnight price collapse.

Three stocks have proven the utility of this investing rule in spades: Valeant Pharma, Wells Fargo, and Mylan Labs. All three have been scrutinized for behavior labeled unethical by some and illegal by others, and all three have cost their investors in a big way because of it.

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buy the housing dips

Nearly a decade after the financial crisis interest rates remain at zero. Fed watchers have been arguing for years that policymakers will soon raise rates, only to see the possibility put off yet again (and again and again). While many believe Yellen and company have stuck with ZIRP due to worries about the impact of a hike on the stock market, a bigger concern might be housing.

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it’s (still) the economy, stupid

On Monday night, more than eighty million Americans watched our two candidates for president argue more about missing tax returns, deleted emails, and a former beauty queen than the issue that matters most to our country’s health and prosperity: economic growth.

When our economy grows rapidly, as it did during the Reagan and (Bill) Clinton administrations, good things happen. Home ownership increases, budget deficits shrink (Mr. Clinton produced a surplus his last four years), crime drops, and America’s influence increases worldwide. Unfortunately, our gross domestic product hasn’t grown more than four percent a year since the end of the last century, and I don’t see it topping that critical figure again anytime soon.

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tech stocks are still seriously overvalued

Seventeen years ago, I had a front row seat for the nuttiest mania in stock market history. I vividly remember visiting now failed companies like Quokka Sports, Planet RX, Women.com, and Commerce One and listening to their managements confidently predict glowing futures. These firms, and many more, sold above 100x revenues–and they were far from the most overvalued stocks in the market. Other public dotcom companies had no revenues at all. Their stocks soared on nothing more than hopeful business models and lofty expectations of explosive growth.

I was in the ninth year of managing my hedge fund in 1999. It gained 8 percent that year, badly lagging the S&P’s 19 percent return and the Nasdaq’s staggering 85 percent (!) gain. In March of 2000, the Nasdaq hit an all-time high of 5132.52. Then, on March 20th, Barron’s magazine wrote a much publicized article that listed every dotcom by its cash, monthly cash burn, and the number of months before each company would run out of money if it did not raise additional capital. There were 207 companies on that list. A large number went broke. Some of those flameouts, like Pets.com, live on in infamy. The majority of them are only recalled by hardcore stock junkies, especially those who got burned by their implosion.

Remember Be Free, ZapMe!, SmarterKids.com, drkoop.com, and MotherNature.com? Most investors under the age of 35 almost certainly don’t—and that’s a problem, because what happened to those businesses could easily happen to many of the new tech sector darlings. Far more companies in today’s public and private markets will probably become tomorrow’s drkoop.com instead of the next Amazon or Microsoft. And as we saw so vividly in 2000, when the end comes, it comes quickly.

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happy birthday to the index fund

Wednesday marked the fortieth birthday of the most investor-friendly idea in stock market history: the index fund. Forty years ago Vanguard introduced the first fund that merely tracked the S&P 500. It has appreciated 6,334 percent since inception, trailing the S&P by a mere .14 percent annually, all of which was the ‘expense ratio’ charged investors. Few, if any other funds have matched or exceeded this annual return.

Today roughly $5 trillion is invested in index funds. Vanguard is the largest index manager, with over $3 trillion in assets under management (AUM). Other money managers now offer index products alongside their traditional, actively managed funds.

Study after academic study shows that index funds outperform most actively managed funds. The reason is simple. Fees. The average expense ratio for actively managed stock funds is around 1.5 percent. It is somewhat less for fixed income funds. As Vanguard founder John Bogle has convincingly shown, a fund with a 1.5 percent annual fee (and the same pre-fee annual return) will produce a much smaller total return over a multi-year period than a fund with a .14 percent annual fee.

Investors have taken notice. According to the Wall Street Journal, they have invested $409 billion in passive index funds in the last year and pulled $310 billion out of actively managed funds over the same period. Roughly 20 percent of all money in stock funds is now indexed, up from zero 40 years ago.

I suspect this trend will accelerate.

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