Short on shorting

Every now and then I see one or two questions regarding shorting stocks, and I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts.

First of all, shorting can work for some, for short time periods, but when shorting you are inherently fighting an uphill battle for a few reasons. In order to fully understand these, we should first make sure we understand what shorting is.

Shorting, going short, or short selling stocks (or other financial instruments) is a position that’s negatively correlated with the price of the asset. In normal language, that means a short position is a bet the the price will go down in the future. In practice, this position is achieved by borrowing shares of a stock, then selling them, netting you cash in hand today plus a debt in a number of shares.

Reason 1: Unfavourable risk-reward

When buying a stock (“going long”) the potential upside is thousands of percent, while in the worst case scenario the business goes bankrupt in one day and your shares are worthless. In other words the largest downside (assuming no leverage) is -100%. When shorting however, this risk-reward is flipped on its head. In the best case scenario the business goes to zero tomorrow and you can repay your loaned shares with nothing. In other words, the best case upside is 100%. As you might have guessed by now, the maximum downside is theoretically infinite.

Reason 2: Time works against you

Since you are borrowing shares, you have to pay interest. This causes the value of the position to decrease with time, even if the price of the shares does not increase. This negative correlation with time can make the position a losing position even if the share price falls. On the other hand, your time cost on a long position is the alternative cost of capital over the holding period. Thus, you do not face the built in headwind of interest cost on your position when you buy a stock.

Reason 3: Everybody else want your position to fail

The final and most important point, is that all stakeholders related to the business will want it to succeed. Of course, shareholders want the stock price to increase and thus your short position declining. All lenders to the company all want their loan paid back, with interest, so they too want the business to succeed. The board of directors and the management team all want to make money, so they too want the business to succeed. Finally, most of the customers will want deliverance of their goods, and the suppliers want to both keep their client and get paid for whatever goods or services they have delivered. In other words, they too want the business to succeed.

In summary, shorting is incredibly difficult because of these three aspects. If you really want to bet on the price of a stock falling, or hedge some position, put options can be a better alternative than straight up shorting shares. This is of course only given that your position size is large enough to warrant the fees. If we instead inverse these three reasons, we get some good reasons why to be long biased. All this said, I usually like knowing what the short sellers are betting on in any of my positions, and what their reasons are. In most cases, they are smart individuals and may have found something I missed. Over and out.

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