While we rarely sell securities short – both because of the degree of execution difficulty and theoretically unlimited risk compared to limited potential return – we do believe that short-selling serves a vitally important function.
Markets, of course, fluctuate; driven by human emotion, greed, and fear, they can reach significantly overvalued levels. This is bad, both because it can induce some who cannot afford losses to speculate, and because it can lead to an improper allocation of society’s resources. The recent housing bubble illustrates the problem: excessive home prices led to excessive home building, eventually resulting in a price collapse, large loan losses, and great personal hardship. In addition, the decline that follows periods of market overvaluation is bad for the broader economy, for confidence, and for rational decision making; it also frequently triggers government intervention in markets, with all of its inevitable distorting effects. Just as value buyers can dampen downside volatility, short-sellers can dampen the upside excesses. They don’t actually change the eventual outcomes, just help us get there sooner. This makes short-sellers unpopular, as the uninformed masses enjoy high and rising securities prices for the short-term profits they produce, without understanding the societal costs of the future reversal. The less you understand valuation, the more that overvaluation seems like a free lunch – which of course it isn’t.
From our experience, much long-oriented analysis is simplistic, highly optimistic, and sloppy. Short-sellers, by going against the long-term tide of economic growth and the short-term swells of public opinion and margins calls, are forced to be crackerjack analysts. Their work product is usually top-notch and needs to be. Short-sellers shouldn’t be reviled or banned; most should be celebrated and encouraged. They are the policemen of the financial markets, identifying frauds and cautioning against bubbles. In effect, they protect the unsophisticated from predatory schemes that regulators and enforcement agencies don’t seem able to prevent.
Moreover, the short-seller who is fundamentally wrong, who mistakenly sells short an undervalued security, will lose money and, if the pattern continues, will eventually go broke. Short-sellers, like long-only buyers, need to be right more than they are wrong; when they are right, their actions are socially beneficial, not harmful. The only exception to this point, the only danger short-sellers pose to society, is when, in the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, they spread false rumors that prevent a company that needs regular financing (such as brokerage firms) from being funded. Then, their predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies, enabling them to profit, whether or not they were fundamentally correct; they may actually be able to change the outcome. Yet, even in this situation, one may wonder whether any company – or highly leveraged government, for that matter – should employ a funding model that depends on perpetual access to the capital markets, which are notoriously fickle, volatile, subject to the influence of malicious gossip, and short-term oriented. In any event, mechanisms such as the uptick rule and rules against market manipulation already exist to prevent such misbehavior by short-sellers.