GameStop Short Nightmare Shows Few Signs of Becoming a Contagion

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GameStop Corp.’s surge has struck fear into anyone caught on the wrong side of its ascent. But those bearish positions probably aren’t big enough to lay low the larger universe of investment funds.

That’s the view of Barclays Plc strategists led by Maneesh Deshpande. By plotting the value of bearish equity bets versus the whole market’s capitalization, they found that short sales have actually dwindled during the past year to the lowest level since at least 2008. Moreover, those most-heavily shorted companies targeted by day traders this year had bearish wagers amounting to less than 0.001% of the $43 trillion market.

Whether losses being suffered by hedge funds and other money pools will be large enough to ignite a full-blown contagion was a concern that arose several times during last week’s selling -- the worst in the S&P 500 since October. For now, while Reddit-fueled stock jocks may have drowned out every other narrative, they’re unlikely to completely subsume the bull market.

GameStop Short Nightmare Shows Few Signs of Becoming a Contagion

“We’re witnessing a nearly unprecedented amount of speculative activity. But on the other hand, we are talking about a very narrow group of stocks that don’t have an outsize influence,” said Marshall Front, chief investment officer at Front Barnett Associates. “The underlying fundamentals of the economy are strong. A very aggressive and accommodative policy by the Federal Reserve is still intact. Together, they help the stock market on the way up.”

Burned by short sales going against them, hedge funds have yanked money from the market at one of the fastest rates on record. The most-shorted stocks rallied 14% last week as a group, dealing the biggest blow to short sellers since last April, a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. basket shows.

While the S&P 500 dropped more than 3% last week, traders described the broad market as orderly. To JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s strategists including Dubravko Lakos-Bujas, the retreat is likely a “short-lived technical tumble.” With earnings improving and U.S. consumers strengthening, this pullback is another opportunity to add stocks, particularly those geared toward an economic recovery, the strategists wrote in a Friday note.

GameStop Short Nightmare Shows Few Signs of Becoming a Contagion

To be sure, day traders are targeting companies favored by bearish investors, trying to spur squeezes. In 2021, the top quintile of the Russell 3000 stocks with the highest short sales as a percentage of their float is up 20%, compared with a loss of 0.8% for the bottom 600, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. But those returns are also consistent with a contour that was already taking shape as investor risk appetite increased: gains in companies with shakier finances, which had trailed during 2020’s pandemic market.

“Although the short squeeze started with GME, it appears to be spreading to a wider range of stocks,” Deshpande at Barclays wrote in a note Friday, referring to GameStop’s ticker. “While we expect some more deleveraging, ultimately the scale of the problem appears quite limited.”

GameStop Short Nightmare Shows Few Signs of Becoming a Contagion

By Barclays’s tally, short sales totaled $800 billion, or roughly 2% of the total market value of American equities, a sign that short sellers have not extended themselves. The heavily shorted companies -- those with interest making up more than 20% of their share float -- saw $40 billion of their stock sold short, or 5% of the total pool of bearish bets.

“We remain optimistic that it is likely to remain localized,” Deshpande said. “The bottom line is that while the pain could continue in the short term, the risk of a full-fledged contagion remains low.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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