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:
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.
My last post generated a fair amount of negative feedback on my Yahoo Finance page and on Twitter. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and being called an idiot (and worse) by all sorts of strangers on the internet. I understand that people have strong feelings about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but I have to say, the vitriol of the comments took me by surprise.
Setting aside whether it was fair (or legal) for the government to change the bailout terms for Fannie and Freddie, my main point in writing about the two giant GSEs seemed rather straightforward: the low-priced stocks and preferred shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are extremely risky investments. If Washington formally nationalizes these companies (or does so informally, as it seems to be doing right now), there is a good chance that their stocks will go to zero. Sure, the big hedge funds and their armadas of lawyers might prevail in court and win the return of the companies’ dividends to shareholders. But even if that happens, it will probably take years. As I wrote in the last line of the post, “There are easier ways to make money.”
The broader lesson of the GSEs for both retail and professional investors can be stated in four words:
I recently joined a group of other money managers for a meeting at Neflix’s (NFLX) Los Gatos, California headquarters. The company’s IR rep gave a concise 30-minute business overview, followed by 30 minutes of questions. I’ve never considered investing in Netflix and I probably never will. As a rule, I don’t buy or short popular, high-profile companies. But I have to say, I came away from that presentation more than a little skeptical about Netflix’s future prospects.
The company’s subscription service is a good, if not great business and its user growth has been impressive, but NFLX is an extremely expensive stock by almost any metric. Even after its recent selloff, its market capitalization still tops $40 billion vs. $6.8 billion in estimated 2015 revenues and roughly zero free cash flow in both 2015 and 2016. Its high valuation isn’t what worries me, though. Today about ten percent of the content available on Netflix is either licensed or created by the company. It plans to increase that number to fifty percent. To say this is an extremely risky move would be an understatement.
Warren Buffett famously advised investors to “be greedy when others are fearful.” With stocks all over the world getting clubbed in recent days, there is no shortage of fear out there. The question is: will all that negative sentiment become another “wall of worry” that the markets climb to new highs? I can’t say for sure. No one can. I will say that during yesterday’s gruesome selloff, I spent more time adding to my fund’s short book than searching out potential buys. That’s because, even with the Dow and S&P suffering their worst weekly declines in four years, I still see wildly, even stupidly overvalued companies everywhere I look.
Jim Cramer has been talking up what he calls the “FANG” stocks again: Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX) and Google (GOOG). Cramer has touted these stocks for several years now, and for good reason. They’ve far outpaced the market in that time. Throw in a second world-beating “A” stock, Apple (AAPL), and the five companies are worth a staggering $1.8 trillion in combined market capitalization, or roughly 17 percent of the NASDAQ composite and 9 percent of the S&P 500.
There’s no doubt about it: if you haven’t been in these stocks over the last few years, it’s been damn near impossible to beat the indexes. (And God help anyone who dared to short them.) But, past results aside, will the FANG stocks continue to bite off big gains in the future? Investors certainly seem to think so. Facebook’s early struggles as a public company seem like ancient history. Last week, Google added almost $60 billion in market cap in a single day and Netflix popped ten percent on strong user growth. As for Amazon, it just keeps heading higher and higher, profits be damned.