The Short Selling Environment Has Never Been Worse
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The Short Selling Environment Has Never Been Worse

Short bets are a tough sell.

The Reddit-inspired short squeeze in GameStop Corp. and other stocks has spurred billions of dollars in losses for short sellers in recent weeks, prompting a rethink of the practice among some investors. Last Friday, Ken Griffin of hedge-fund Citadel declared after Congressional hearings the turmoil will diminish short selling for the foreseeable future.

But the environment for short selling was already among the worst in decades even before the GameStop blowup. Even with this week’s sharp selloff, broad gains in equities in the past year have made it difficult to bet against almost any one stock.

The most-shorted stocks have gained 112% since last March while the least-shorted names rose 40%, according to a Scotiabank analysis. In January, when GameStop gyrations gripped markets, a record was reached between the most- and least-expensive stocks to borrow with the most expensive outperforming the least by 29%, according to IHS Markit.

“I think it would be fair to characterize the time from the late-March 2020 until now as being the worst period on record for short interest factors,” said Sam Pierson, director of Securities Finance at IHS Markit.

The Short Selling Environment Has Never Been Worse

It’s not unusual for the most-shorted stocks to outperform gains in the least-shorted companies when coming out of a bear market. But what is surprising this time is the extent of the current outperformance and the pain it has caused, even before the start of 2021, Scotiabank analyst Jean-Michel Gauthier said.

“Typically when you see the high-profile shorts throw in the towel, it is a good time to be hunting. But in this environment it still seems too early,” said Adam Eagleston, chief investment officer of Formidable Asset Management, which manages over $600 million in assets.

To be sure, short selling positions haven’t completely disappeared.

Small caps are one example of where short bets by hedge funds have widened, according to net contracts data last week from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. But short interest as a percentage of float for the Russell 3000 has continued to plunge, according to financial analytics firm S3 Partners.

Russell 3000 short interest stands at 5.6%, which is the lowest in at least two years as funds continue to trim their positions. That’s down from at least a two-year high of 7.5% a month ago.

Read more: Hedge Funds Reverse Course to Go Short Small Caps: Taking Stock

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