Rules for Shorting

I know Whitney Tilson from our days. He is a smart guy, and a very good Value manager.

But like many value guys, he can be early (on trading desks, they call that “wrong”). In his January letter to investors, he discusses some of his recent shorts that have not worked out (see PDF below). I love any money manager that does that — fearless, honest, self-reflective — these are the traits of a person who won’t make the same mistake twice. (Good for him)

When it comes to shorting, many people are in the dark. It is more challenging to be short, subject to squeezes; the return max out at 100% — versus unlimited upside for longs.

Over the years, I have put together some rules for shorting. These are pretty broad and general, but they have kept me out of trouble when

Basic Rules for Shorting Stocks

1. Shorting Momentum names is dangerous: Unless you are Superman, never step in front of a speeding locomotive

2. Valuation alone is insufficient reason to get short a stock — History teaches us that cheap stocks can get cheaper, dear stocks can get more expensive

3. ALWAYS work with a pre-determined loss — either a physical or mental stop loss — Never leave yourself open to infinite losses

4. Fundamentals tell you WHY to short something, not WHEN to short it. ALWAYS have some technical confirmation before shorting. Make a short selling wish list, then WAIT for technical confirmation. (We use Money Flow, Short Term Trend lines, Institutional Ownership, Analyst Ratings).

5. It is tough to be a contrarian: During Bull and Bear cycles, the Crowd IS the market.

You have to figure out two things:
a) When the crowd is wrong — Doug Kass calls it “Variant Perception”
b) When the crowd starts to get an inkling they are wrong

At the turns — not the major trends — is where contrarians clean up.

6. Look for Over-owned, Over-loved stocks: 95% Institutional ownership, All buys or Strong Buys (no sells), and 700% gains over the past few years are reasons to put names on your short selling wish list.  (That is how my partner Kevin Lane found and shorted Enron and Tyco back in the 1990s).

7. Beware the “Crowded Short“– they tend to become targets of the squeeze!

8. You can use Options to either juice your short returns, or pre-define your risk capital (options)

That is my short shorting list . . .


Here is Tilson’s Letter to Clients

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