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.
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.
(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.
My week in New York finished out nicely with an appearance this morning on Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo. We had a great conversation about performance in the hedge fund community, the state of the economy and the markets, and–of course–my book Dead Companies Walking.
Find the video below (or at this link if you are reading this on email.) I also had a good chat about the book and short-selling with TheStreet.com, which you can find here and Business Insider here.
Thank you again to everyone I met with this week and to everyone who has bought and read the book.
Last week, I wrote a bearish article on Tesla for Seeking Alpha–not the company, the stock. As I said in the piece (and an earlier blog post), I admire Elon Musk and I think Teslas are neat cars. I’ve even considered buying one. But the company’s stock is another story. The logic of paying more than $200 a share for a barely cash positive business with all sorts of very large challenges ahead of it seems, well, stretched to me. And yet, people keep on buying. The article came out Monday morning, West Coast time. By the end of the day, Tesla was up another eight bucks. A few days later, Tesla beat on its Q2 earnings and the stock started pushing against its all time highs again. Correction? What correction?
Even though I clearly stated in my piece that I have no positions in the company, long or short, and no plans to initiate any positions in the future, several commenters accused me of secretly shorting Tesla and trying to drag its share price down. Unfortunately, this sort of vitriol is common. Short sellers are about as popular as personal injury lawyers and IRS agents these days. In the eyes of most investors, we’re little more than greedy vultures looking to smear good companies so we can profit on their fall. This simplistic, black hat-versus-white hat understanding of the financial world might be comforting, but it’s a dangerous fantasy.
In reality, the people waving the white hats and whipping this bull market higher are the ones investors should really be fearing–or at least questioning.
Last week, I posted an article on Seeking Alpha on the troubled biotech firm Dendreon (DNDN). Eighteen months ago, I shorted over 200,000 shares of the company. As I said in the article, even though the stock has lost its half its value, I haven’t covered a single share, and I doubt I ever will. Why? Because it’s a classic example of what I call a dead-company-walking. In the near future, probably less than two years, I believe it is destined for one fatal outcome: bankruptcy.
This prediction, and the fact that I have sold the stock short, generated a fair amount of negative reactions to the piece. One commenter declared that all short sellers should be “iviscerated” (sic). Yikes! Others respondents were less colorful, but no less angry. They blamed short sellers like me for bringing down what they believe is a good company with a beneficial cancer drug. But blaming shorts like me for Dendreon’s demise shows a fundamental misunderstanding of corporate capital structures and how bankruptcy works.
The talk of the investment world this past week has been the continuing soap opera at JC Penney. The latest installment has been the feud between board member and New York hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and just about everybody else within the company. Ackman, of course, was the one who convinced the board to hire former Apple retail guru Ron Johnson as CEO—a move that cost the company billions after Johnson disastrously tried to make the venerable retailer into some kind of glorified cross between Saks Fifth Avenue and Urban Outfitters.
After the company finally got rid of Johnson in May, Ackman agreed to bring back former CEO Mike Ullman on an interim basis. But that brief period of harmony vanished this week when Ackman publicly aired his displeasure with Ullman’s leadership. That move was the last straw for the board. They accepted Ackman’s resignation, calling his recent behavior “disruptive and counterproductive.”
Too which I say—”disruptive and counterproductive???” I know corporate boards tend to err on the side of decorum and blandness, but calling Bill Ackman “disruptive and counterproductive” to Penney’s is like calling an arsonist “disruptive and counterproductive” to buildings.
I shorted Penney’s seven months ago. It was a dead company walking then and I still believe it is a dead company walking today. And the person that mortally wounded it was the exact person who caused the latest trouble, Mr. Ackman himself. Ackman has been “disruptive and counterproductive” from day one at Penney’s, and even though he’s gone now, he’s left behind the torched shell of a once great company.