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:
This is part two of my responses to some of the emails, messages, and tweets I’ve received in recent weeks. Part one was posted on Monday.
A number have readers have contacted me wondering about specific stocks. I generally don’t like to comment on companies I haven’t studied, so I have been reluctant to offer my thoughts on most of them. However, I thought it might be worthwhile to respond to this tweet from Thomas Yarbrough (@tmyrbrgh):
Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who has emailed, messaged, or tweeted at me since my book Dead Companies Walking came out. I’ve tried to reply directly to as many folks as possible but running my fund has taken up most of my time and attention, so I thought I would post my responses to a few interesting questions, comments, and criticisms I’ve received in recent weeks here. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit everything into one post, so I had to break my responses up into two parts. I’ll post the second half on Wednesday.
First up, an email from a reader named Greg:
“I am a private investor who has been investing on the long side for most of my career. I’ve almost finished your excellent book, ‘Dead Companies Walking,’ and it has inspired me to start trading the short side as well. My immediate question is: Where do you find all the good ideas? It’s fairly easy to find long ideas in places like Value Investor’s Club (of which I am a member), or the published portfolio lists of hedge fund managers. But where do you get quality short ideas? Thanks for your help with this!”
After a rough start to the new year, a lot of investors might be tempted to buy into “fallen angel” companies at or near all-time lows. They’re not hard to find. In the tech sector, GoPro and Fitbit, two profitable and recently public companies, have taken major hits. GoPro is down 90 percent from its all-time high. Fitbit has lost two-thirds of its peak value. Another sector where investors might be looking to buy low is energy, where scores of service and exploration companies are down 90 percent or more. Established names like Denbury Resources, Forbes Energy, Gastar Exploration, Basic Energy, Bill Barrett, and Ultra Petroleum, among others, have all been creamed, and could seem like bargains.
With his billion dollar battle royale against Herbalife entering its fourth year, Bill Ackman is starting to sound a bit punchy. Last week, during an Interview for Bloomberg TV, he likened short-selling to “brain damage” and declared “there are easier ways to make money.”
All I can say is: I feel your pain, Bill!
I don’t bet against powerful corporations with billions in market cap. By and large, the companies I short are beaten down and headed for bankruptcy. But the stocks of sickly firms can stay just as stubbornly high as Herbalife’s has, and they often spike higher for brief spurts even as their underlying businesses erode. Living through these rallies might not cause brain damage, but it’s definitely a major headache.
I’m kicking myself for not following my instincts and shorting Yelp (YELP) before it announced utterly rancid earnings last Thursday. For years, the only thing that has mystified me more than Yelp’s business model has been its enduring popularity with Wall Street. As I type, I’m looking at a pile of recent analyst reports with absurd price targets for the company. I like to save these kinds of laughably optimistic reports. It’s a hobby of mine. I’ve still got a glowing buy recommendation for Enron dated only days before the energy behemoth imploded.
For all my doubts about Yelp and other social media stocks, there’s a good reason I have not shorted any of them up to now. It’s just too risky to bet against companies in the midst of a secular mania–and make no mistake, that is exactly what has lifted Yelp, Twitter, LinkedIn and their ilk to stupidly large valuations that they will almost certainly never live up to.
(note: this post originally appeared last Thursday on my Yahoo! Finance contributor page.)
Last week, a longstanding short in my fund released one of the grimmest quarterly reports I’ve seen in three decades of managing money. The company’s most important sales metric dropped at a double-digit rate, meaning its near-term revenues are going to be abysmal (after all, today’s sales are tomorrow’s revenues). Its long-term outlook isn’t great either because its most profitable product is fast becoming obsolete. Meanwhile, sales rates for new, less profitable products are modest and the business is hobbled by more than $2 billion in debt, all of which is coming due in less than two years. On the plus side, the company still generates a fair amount of cash, almost $400 million last year. Too bad interest payments to service its monstrous debt load were almost as large.
Declining sales, a sunsetting business model and crushing debt. If that isn’t a recipe for bankruptcy, I don’t know what is. Oh yeah, did I mention that this same company has already filed for Chapter 11 protection twice in the last decade?
I’d love to tell you the name of this business. Hell, I just wrote a book called Dead Companies Walking and this is probably the best example of a company heading for oblivion in the market today. But naming it would almost certainly wind up costing me and my investors a ton of money.
The two ways to go bankrupt, as Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, are gradually and then suddenly. The “gradually” phase of the process can take a good long while, sometimes years, but once a business starts to exhibit the two biggest symptoms of impending disaster–falling revenues and mounting debt–the “suddenly” part is all but inevitable. It came for the troubled biotech company Dendreon (ticker: DNDN) on Monday when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The move should have surprised exactly no one, and not just because I predicted it well over a year ago now on Seeking Alpha. Back in September, the company’s own management warned that it was probably going to wipe out its shareholders. But that didn’t stop credulous investors from buying Dendreon’s stock–incredibly, it didn’t dip below a dollar until earlier this month–or dubious stock boosters from feeding their hopes for a miraculous turnaround. Take a look at the headline on a Zack’s.com posting: “Why Earnings Season Could be Great for Dendreon.” The article, which gives DNDN a buy rating, is dated November 10, 2014–the exact same day the company announced that it had filed for bankruptcy.
Astronomers constantly scan the night sky for supernovas so that they can observe and study how stars die. It’s a fascinating process. Right now, a very large corporate supernova has begun and it is just as fascinating–and educational. Unfortunately, I was forced to cover my short position in the dying company because my prime broker now charges me an exorbitant “negative rebate” to short stocks. But I’m still watching from a distance.