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:
[Before I get to the latest post, a quick reminder that you can receive new posts by email. Simply scroll down until you find the “Subscribe to this Blog” box in the right margin, then enter your email address and complete two quick steps to confirm it.]
Two of the roughest, most failure-prone sectors in the stock market have always been—and probably always will be—restaurants and retail. Competition is brutal in both spaces, margins are usually slender, and bankruptcy always seems to be one poor management decision away.
I’ve written about the slow-motion train wreck of the traditional retail sector fairly regularly over the last couple of years, and with several large operators like Nordstrom’s and Kohl’s posting surprisingly decent earnings lately, I thought it might be a good time to check back again. Could brick-and-mortar retail be on the brink a comeback?
Wall Street has always been captivated by controversial companies, controversial leaders, and controversial mergers. Tesla’s shocking offer to buy SolarCity on Tuesday featured all three, so it was no surprise that the deal instantly seemed like a bigger story than the presidential race, gun control, ISIS, and Brexit. It even managed to make the last controversial company that dominated headlines, Valeant Pharma, seem like an afterthought.
A few people have written in asking my opinion of the deal. The short answer is, I believe investors are well advised to avoid both stocks like the plague. As separate entities, these companies are wildly overvalued story stocks with a good chance of going broke. Together, they will form one wildly overvalued story stock with a good chance of going broke.
I’m traveling this week, so I’m not able to write a new blog post, but I thought I would share the video of the presentation J. Carlo Cannell and I made at last year’s Stansberry Conference in Las Vegas. (Email subscribers can find the video on Youtube by clicking here.) I’m scheduled to present at the conference again this September. You can register here if you’d like to attend.
As last year’s holiday season was kicking off, I cautioned investors for the second year in a row to beware of the traditional retail sector. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. This earnings season has been an unmitigated disaster, with one retailer after another turning in disappointing reports. Gap, Nordstrom, Macy’s, JC Penney, Kohls, and others have all dropped precipitously.
Some contrarian investors who buy out of favor stocks in out of favor industries have started calling a bottom for these companies, positing that the recent selloff provides an attractive entry price for long term investors.
Two high profile commodity companies filed for bankruptcy last week. The first was St. Louis-based coal producer Peabody Energy (BTU). Peabody was the latest coal producer to file, following Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, and Walter Energy. BTU quickly fell below $1 on the news. Just a few years ago, Peabody’s market capitalization exceeded $20 billion. On Wednesday, Houston offshore oil producer Energy XXI (EXXI) joined Peabody in bankruptcy court. Four years ago, EXXI was a $32 stock. On Thursday, the day after it announced its bankruptcy filing, it closed at 12 cents.
Ever since oil cratered to $26/barrel on February 11th, prices have steadily inched higher. West Texas Intermediate has now climbed into the $40/barrel range. Not surprisingly, energy stocks have kept pace, with many service companies and independent producers hitting year-to-date highs. Unfortunately for some energy firms, however, this recovery will probably be too little, too late.
Last week, USA Today reported that an unbelievable 359 stocks on major exchanges are now below one dollar, up from 222 just two months ago. To put that number in perspective, twenty years ago only 60 stocks on major exchanges were “hat sized,” or trading for fractions of a buck. At the end of 2008, during the worst depths of the financial crisis, there were only 242 sub-$1 stocks:
On the plane ride back from the Booth Investment Management Conference in Chicago on Sunday, I read the great new book by veteran financial journalist Bethany McLean, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants. The book tells the story of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two massive GSEs (government sponsored enterprises) that buy, package, and sell pools of mortgage loans. It’s a fascinating, if distressing history. Unfortunately, because our government failed to do away with Fannie and Freddie during the 2008 financial crisis, that history is still unfolding.
I have to admit, I’m looking forward to the Republican debate on Wednesday. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s candor is entertaining. It’s somewhat fun to watch him dismiss his political opponents (including the sitting president) as “losers” and “lightweights,” and his critiques of my industry—which he refers to as “those hedge fund guys”—are mostly spot on. Too many big fund managers really are little more than under-taxed, economically destructive financial engineers. Trump’s strident anti-immigrant rhetoric is far more troubling, but it’s not hard to see why it appeals to voters who feel left behind by globalization and the increasingly polyglot composition of America’s electorate.
Most economic studies show that immigration, legal and illegal, is a net contributor, not a cost, to economic growth. Three decades ago, the legendary University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman noted that the majority of illegal immigrants work, pay income and payroll taxes, but rarely receive government benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently been on the receiving end of government largesse. Despite his professed belief in free markets, he is the prototypical crony capitalist. Without all sorts of tax breaks, debt forgiveness, and giveaways, he would be far less rich.