What does it mean to short a stock?
This means that you borrow the stock from your broker to sell to a third party. The idea is to buy back the stock at a lower price, returning the shares to your broker while leaving the remaining cash in your account as a profit. Put another way, a short seller does not own the stock before they sell it. Instead, they borrow it from another investor who already owns it. At a later date, the short seller buys back the stock they shorted and returns the stock to close out the loan. If the stock has fallen in price since they sold short, they can buy the stock back for less than they received for selling it. The difference is your profit.
Short selling is a transaction made on margin. This means that you must open a margin account to sell short. Most online brokers allow you to open a margin account if you qualify according to their rules and regulations. Criteria related to minimum balances and cash reserves may apply. You will sign an agreement with your broker to open a margin account, this agreement says that you will maintain a cash margin or pledge your stocks as margin. (Note: Call your individual brokers for additional questions that you may have).
Shorting can be difficult even during a bear market. The conditions must be exactly right for a stock to be considered a short. Just because a stock looks overvalued or high doesn?t mean that it is time to sell this stock short. As I have said before, what looks high to one investor may still be low to another. Two things to take into consideration would be dividends and thinly traded stocks. A stock paying a dividend must be paid by you the short seller when this position is on. Low volume stocks can be very volatile and market makers and money managers can run up the price quickly crushing your short play and adding to your overall loss.
If the stock rises above your sell price, eventually you will have to cover your short for a loss. If you have not placed a stop loss, the stock can continue to go higher as your portfolio heads for disaster. Theoretically, a stock can rise infinitely, meaning your losses can rise infinitely. Imagine shorting NVR at $200 a share because you though it was overvalued, only to see it go to $700 per share. I am sure this type of trade would wipe out or leave a big dent in anyone?s portfolio.
Many great shorting opportunities come from the same small and mid cap stocks that were once high flyers in previous months or years. For example, TZOO and DCAI were high flyers in 2004 before they became red flags and shorting opportunities. Even large cap companies such as eBay, SBUX and HD can present shorting opportunities at certain points.
Ideal shorting candidates will have built several bases over a long period of time resulting in faulty late stage bases as the stock starts to fall. We look towards stocks that have built four or more bases over a few years although this is not always necessary. Stocks such as the mortgage lenders (LEND & CFC) have built many bases since 2002 and have run up several hundred percent. Home builders also fall under this category but have not made our shorting lists as of yet. They have been showing some red flags but support has been noted at or slightly above the 50-d moving averages.
Additional criteria for shorting candidates will be decelerating earnings and sales and a relative strength line heading down. Basically take the characteristics that we use for long positions and reverse the criteria to develop a list of possible short candidates. Even familiar chart patterns can be used to spot shorts; the reverse cup shaped base, the head and shoulders pattern and/or the flat base with a stock breaking out to the downside on above average volume. Industry groups that are becoming weak or are showing multiple stocks falling and breaking through key trend lines should be noted on a watch list. If one stocks looks like a short candidate, look for additional sister stocks that may have the same set-up. Remember, stocks usually move in groups whether they go up or down.
I tend to look for stocks that are below both the 50-d and 200-d moving averages. Once they slice through both of these lines, I then look for a strong down-trend and a failure to break above the 200-d moving average. This is my ideal time to short a particular stock.
Always have a sound exit plan in place with a predetermined stop loss to protect your capital. We typically use a 7-10% stop loss for our long positions depending on the market strength but I would advise a larger buffer for short candidates. A stop loss placed 10-12% from your sell point would be ideal as most stocks have a natural tendency to go up or contain volatility near the shorting sell point.
Shorting stocks can be more difficult to learn than buying stocks because a whole new set of rules and bearish short patterns must be learned, on top of your buying rules and chart pattern skills. Shorting can take many more years to master and can provide a shorter window of opportunity as bear markets typically don?t last as long as bull markets do. No matter what strategy you develop with shorting or buying long, you must always stick to strict sell rules. Never argue with a position that goes against you, emotions and pride mean nothing in the market, especially in the short market. Sell all losers immediately before they devastate your portfolio and your confidence going forward.
When I first published this article, I had a few questions asking if shorting stocks is legal and I will quickly reply with a big YES. Some people believe that shorting shares of American companies is not patriotic or does not seem like the right thing to do. Shorting stocks is not my primary method of making profits in the market as many of you already know, but it is a valid strategy that must be covered especially since the market has focused on red flag and shorting opportunities since December 2004. In the world of supply and demand, things go up and things go down, it?s human nature. Stocks have been shorted for over a century and have provided investors with an alternative strategy to making profits.
To initiate a short sale, you must place the order with your broker or online brokerage by determining the size and price at which the trade will occur. Your broker or brokerage company will check to see if shares are available in the specific stock selected or if they can borrow the shares. Once they are available or can be borrowed, they will be sold in the open market on the first plus tick or continuation of an up-tick also known as zero-plus tick (the stock must move up for the transaction to complete). To close the short position, the broker will purchase the shares using the original proceeds and return the shares to the third party.
As a short seller, you believe that the price of a particular stock will fall in value over time. For example: by establishing a short position for 100 shares in XYZ at $50, the broker will place $5,000 into your margin account. If the stocks falls over the next few weeks and you decide to cover the short at $40, you will initiate a buy for 100 shares in XYZ using the money placed in your account when you sold short. The cost to buy back the shares in this example will be $4,000 or $1,000 less than the original short sale amount. This difference in price will result in $1000 cash that will now become your profit.
On the flip side, if the stock was to jump to $60, you would most likely cover your short or have your stop loss triggered, buying back the shares at this price. The cost would be $6000 or $1000 more than the original short sale, resulting in a 20% loss. The broker would take the additional $1000 from your cash account to cover the loss in the short sale. This is how you can lose money when shorting stocks. The higher the stocks rises, the more money you can lose, theoretically resulting with an infinite loss (excluding stop losses and broker margin calls).
If the stock rises in price or if the value of the stocks you are using as collateral goes down in price, you may be forced to add cash to your margin account or cover the short sale prematurely. As I mentioned in the first article, you must pay any dividends issued while you are short a particular stock.
The two basic reasons for selling short would be to profit from a stock that you believe is grossly overvalued or to hedge your account with protection from a down-swing in prices due to anticipated or unexpected events. In the first case, you may have noticed a stock such as EBAY (red flag on our screens since December) topping on the charts and then slicing through all long term trend lines in above average volume. If the stock fails to recover these key trend lines, a further decline may be in the immediate future and you may want to profit from this action. In the second case, you may own several stocks and fear a market downturn is on the horizon but don?t want to sell for certain reasons. Instead, the investor can short specific stocks to hedge their account against possible down-turns. Some investors diversify their portfolio with several long positions and a few short positions. I don?t agree with this strategy but it is a common practice by some institutions and investors.
All short positions should be covered if earnings and sales surprise the street or are starting to become positive. A short should be covered when it breaks above the 200-d moving average and certainly covered when it breaks above the 50-d moving average. If the relative strength line starts to move up, gradually making its way to new territory, I would advise covering the short position before a big breakout occurs. If the ?M? in CANSLIM is starting to turn positive and the daily new highs list if growing with new leaders, this would be a clue that a new up-trend if on the way or currently forming, alerting you that it may be time to cover the short positions before they turn negative.
Some investors may become impatient during bear markets or sideways markets if they don?t learn how to short stocks. Shorting stocks will contribute to a more consistent strategy throughout good and bad times. As I have said in previous articles, shorting is not for everyone and nothing is wrong with sitting in cash during bear markets, awaiting the next breakout and fresh batch of leaders.
Most important, always cut your losses quick! This rule applies to any strategy in the stock market.