Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (CLF), United States Steel Corporation (X): Is Short Interest Warranted?

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August was the first time that the broad-based S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) has looked vulnerable in more than a year. Yet, even with a 3%-plus drop for the month, the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) is up 14.5% year to date — a figure that would trounce the annual average return for stocks.

The reason for the rally since the recession is both tangible and apparent. The financial sector has rebounded in a big way thanks to banks’ improved capital position and historically low lending rates, which have allowed businesses to expand and consumers to refinance at favorable rates. With the foundation under the housing sector strengthening and unemployment levels dropping, there are numerous reasons to assume that the rally will continue.

But as you might imagine, there’s always another side to the coin. The expectation that the Federal Reserve will pare back its monthly bond-buying program has investors on edge that interest rates will continue to rise and stymie any hope of business expansion, as well as the ongoing rally in the housing sector. In addition, numerous macro-scale uncertainties ranging from the effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to ongoing concerns with Middle East nations have investors concerned that U.S. growth may come to a grinding halt.

Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at which companies within the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) have drawn the biggest interest from short sellers — or what you might call the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX)’s most hated stocks. More than just despised, these five stocks can give us insight into what short sellers dislike about these companies so that we can avoid buying into similar businesses in the future.

Company Short Interest as a % of Outstanding Shares
Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF) 34.00%
United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X) 28.76%
J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE:JCP) 28.37%
Pitney Bowes Inc. (NYSE:PBI) 26.88%
Frontier Communications 22.60%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Cliffs Natural Resources
Why are investors shorting Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF)?

  • With the S&P 500 having its worst month since May 2012, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF)’s short interest down 2.51% from the previous month’s reading of 36.51% as pessimists take some profits. What hasn’t changed is that it still remains the most shorted S&P 500 stock of them all. The case against Cliffs Natural is still based around weak iron ore pricing and demand related to a slowdown in China’s GDP growth. The thesis for short sellers is that unless Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF) were to seriously reduce production, or China were to see a miraculous turnaround in iron ore demand, its share price is bound to head lower.

Is this short interest warranted?

  • Without question, I still understand why short sellers have piled into Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF). The company slashed its dividend by 76% in February and iron ore prices have been generally weak for much of the year. However, many of the reasons to bet against Cliffs are beginning to fade. Iron ore prices hit a five-month high in August, and iron supply was way down in China thanks to curbed production from Chinese steel mills. Remaining profitable at just 66% of book value and paying out a yield of nearly 3%, I’d say that Cliffs Natural Resources Inc (NYSE:CLF) is more likely to see $30/share than $10/share at this point.

U.S. Steel
Why are investors shorting United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X)?

  • Similar to Cliffs Natural, weakness in steel demand and pricing combined with an oversupply of existing steel has been the thesis behind short sellers’ attack on United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X). In addition to existing demand and pricing concerns, U.S. Steel announced in mid-August that current CEO John Surma, who’s held the position for the past decade, will be retiring at the end of the year. While some shareholders might be thrilled to see him go given United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X)’s underperformance, it creates added uncertainty that short sellers love to pounce on .

Is this short interest warranted?

  • Unlike Cliffs Natural, the pessimism surrounding United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X) absolutely seems warranted. The first reason for pause is that U.S. Steel hasn’t turned an annual profit since 2008. This isn’t to say that it isn’t improving, because it has taken steps to drastically reduce its costs and pare back its production more in line with global demand. But when push comes to shove, United States Steel Corporation (NYSE:X) still isn’t profitable. Also, the company is carrying significantly more debt that many of its peers. With net debt of $3.16 billion and only $99 million in positive free cash flow over the trailing-12-month period, there are plenty of concerns that should fuel pessimists to pile into U.S. Steel.

Source: Fan of Retail, Flickr.

J.C. Penney
Why are investors shorting J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE:JCP)?

  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Why wouldn’t you short J.C. Penney?” Ever since former CEO Ron Johnson changed Penney’s pricing structure from regular sales to everyday low pricing, the share price has been in the tank. Over the past six quarters, Penney’s has produced an average same-store sales decline of 21.6% and it’s been burning through cash at an exceptional rate. Unless recycled CEO Mike Ullman has some magic tricks up his sleeve, Penney’s underperformance is going to play right into the hands of pessimists.

Is this short interest warranted?

  • Ab-so-lutely! Clearly, the amount of pessimism built up in J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE:JCP) could result in a short squeeze that sends shares higher, but the company hasn’t shown me much of anything that would suggest a turnaround is in order. In the second quarter, its same-store sales still fell by 11.9% year over year and another 470 basis points from the sequential quarter. The bottom line is that Penney’s customers are walking out the door and they’re not coming back. Until we have concrete evidence that this trend reverses, I’d suggest that shorting Penney’s is the more prudent course of action.
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