How Does Short Selling Work?

Short selling is a way to potentially make money in a bear market. When stocks go down, you can profit. Crazy concept huh? After all, as the saying goes, “buy low, sell high.” With short selling, the saying goes, “sell high, buy low.”

This is actually a strategy used by many, even in bull markets. There are always short selling opportunities. Do I short sell? Nope, never have. I do buy put options, which is kinda-sorta the same thing.

So what is short selling?

You borrow shares from your broker and sell them on the open market. Later on – if your analysis was correct and the share price drops – you buy the shares back at a cheaper price than you sold them for, and you keep the difference as profit.

Let’s say ABC is currently selling for $100 per share. You have done your research and proper analysis, and you think ABC is going down. So, you enter a “sell to open” order with your broker, for 100 shares. Your broker lends you those shares and they are automatically sold for $10,000 ($100 per share times 100 shares).

The $10,000 goes into your account, as that is what you sold them for. But DO NOT SPEND THIS MONEY, lol… the trade could go against you.

A week goes by and ABC is down $10 per share to $90. Woo hoo!! Fantastic analysis you did. You decide to close out your position by placing a “buy to close” order. The order is executed, and you just bought the shares back for $9,000 ($90 per share times 100 shares). The broker gets their 100 shares back, and you keep the difference of $1,000 ($10,000 you sold for minus the $9,000 you bought them back for).

Short selling was a bit confusing to me when I first learned of it. I thought, how in the world can you make money when a stock goes down. Well, if your broker is willing to lend you shares, that’s how. You do need a margin account to place short trades. And, of course, margin accounts can be very dangerous for a multitude of reasons.

If you are interested in short selling, contact your broker to find out what you need to do. Also, DO YOUR RESEARCH AND KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING FIRST!!

How Accurate Can They Be?

I have always been split 50/50 on the Market Efficiency Theory. What this theory suggests, is that all information is already baked into the share price. This is the premise behind technical analysis.

If a stock is trading at $100 per share, market efficiency tells us that the share price is absolute (more or less) and has already factored in all available information. The theory suggests that the share price is reflecting company financials, company direction, company head-winds, and any other company info that might be important to know. No work is needed on your part, says the market efficiency guru.

So, I did a little study to see how accurate consensus estimates are. After all, if market efficiency is true, then you would think estimates would be somewhat accurate. Wouldn’t you? If a share price is absolute, and “is what it is,” then the market makers who set these prices have to base them off of something. Company financials are certainly a big part of the theory.

First, here were the rules for my study:

  1. I couldn’t pick the companies. I asked my Facebook group to pick random companies. Those companies had to be legit, and could not be garbage OTC companies. However, I did have to switch 4 companies on my own, as the previous 4 did not have enough financial data on the website I used. The companies I picked were ROKU, AMZN, AMD, and Macy’s. I used 10 random companies total.
  2. I used the same financial website for all data. I used Markets Insider. I also used the same 3 quarters of information for all companies.
  3. I used earnings per share (EPS) and revenue (Rev), as those two are the “big” ones that are looked at closely.
  4. I simply took the difference between estimate and actual, and then found the percentage in which it was off from the actual. From there, I subtracted the percentage it was off from 100%, and used that as my study’s accuracy level.

So what did I find out? Let’s see…

The first 5 companies: Disney, Tesla, Apple, Shopify and Amazon.

The second set of 5: Goldman Sachs, Kinder Morgan, Advanced Micro Devices, Macy’s and Roku.

The overall accuracy for EPS was 73.36%, and the overall accuracy for revenue was 95.87%. That’s pretty impressive if you ask me. The only companies that brought the overall accuracy down were the “wild card” companies: Tesla, Shopify, and Roku. I call them wild cards because they’re technology based. Except Tesla. Tesla is a wild card because it’s a new space in the auto sector, and their CEO is a little bit of a loose cannon.

You can take what you want from this little study of mine. But for me, it brings me a little bit closer to believing the efficiency theory. Am I all in on it? Nope. But I’m closer than I was before.

However, there is still the unforeseen to contend with… Elon Musk tweeting that he may de-list his company and go private, for instance. Or the sex scandal at CBS, or shady accounting practices at Enron. The list goes on. There is much in the market that makes things not efficient.

As I always say, there is absolutely no way to predict the market with 100% accuracy. There never has been, and there never will be. But, I’d take 73.36% or, even better, 95.87% accuracy ANY day of the week!

To Short… What Does That Mean?

The concept of shorting really tripped me up when I first started investing. Before that, I always assumed the only way to make money investing, was to buy. You know – “buy low, sell high.”

But, what I soon learned was that “sell high, buy low” was also a very valid concept. In fact, once I figured this out, I knew that I was going to be able to make money regardless if the market was bullish or bearish. Of course, you still need to know what you’re doing… but in theory, money can be made in a bull or bear market; recession or crazy hot economy. Makes no difference.

But what is shorting? Short selling is the borrowing of shares from ones broker to sell in the open market, and buying those same shares back at a cheaper price and profiting on the difference. Let me explain:

Let’s assume I am bearish on company ABC (hypothetical company). I think they suck, and I think they will drop 5% in price within a week. Currently, ABC is selling for $100 per share. I want to short them, so I open a short position via my trading platform for 10 shares. When I “Sell to Open” via my broker, my broker then lends me the 10 shares I requested, and they are automatically sold on the open market for $1,000 (not including fees).

So, to recap: I borrowed 10 shares from my broker and sold them for $100 per share netting me $1,000 that is deposited into my trading account.

A week goes by and ABC stock did exactly what I thought they would – they tanked 5%. WOO HOO! What a great analyst I am! So ABC is now selling for $95 per share – $100 minus $5 (5% of $100) equals $95. I decide to close my position by placing a “Buy to Close” order.

Now I am buying back the shares that I borrowed, so I can return the borrowed shares to my broker. But, I am buying the shares back at a cheaper price than they were when they were loaned to me… so I get to keep the difference. I sold ABC for $1,000 (10 shares at $100 per share), and bought them back at $950 (10 shares at $95 per share) to give the 10 shares back to my broker. I get to keep the difference – $1,000 minus $950 equals $50. I just made $50, or 5% on my return. FANTASTIC!

The example I gave was for short selling stocks. However, there are other ways to short like buying put options. A put option… simply put (LOL LOL)… is an option contract that you purchase when you think the underlying is going to fall in price. But put options are for another article. Just know that with a put option you are not borrowing anything, rather, you are buying with your money a security that will allow you to profit when the underlying falls in price.

Understanding short selling broadened my horizon in terms of investing. With a good understanding of short selling, it is entirely possible to profit in a bear market, the exact same as you can in a bull market. But, like any other investment type, short selling carries certain risks that other strategies do not. As always, it is absolutely necessary for you to educate yourself on whatever you do BEFORE you do it when it comes to investing or finance.