The Weekly (5/5)

Friday, May 5th 2023


When thinking about investing, most people think about things going up. Short sellers make money by betting on things going down — hence why they are a controversial group.

These enigmatic figures wield a double-edged sword — they attract scorn for profiting from a company's demise but also expose corporate malfeasance. The question stands: are short sellers predators or indispensable sentinels safeguarding market integrity?

Prominent short-selling firms like Kynikos, Muddy Waters, and Hindenburg have made their names by identifying overvalued public companies, often marred by fraud, deception, or misstated earnings. In an oversimplified manner, by betting the stock will go down (shorting the stock) and publishing their research, these firms drive the price down, profiting from the decline before moving on to their next target.

Remember the unmasking of Enron? Credit to short sellers there. Hedge fund managers, like Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates, revealed accounting irregularities that led to the collapse of a massive corporate fraud.

Another one less familiar: in the Sino-Forest saga, short-selling firm Muddy Waters raised concerns about the Chinese company's reported timber assets accusing it of being a "multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme." The company was then delisted. Then just this week, a new short seller report surfaced, attacking the operations of Carl Icahn's Icahn Enterprises. You could think of Carl Icahn as the “Michael Jordan of corporate raiding.”

In all instances, short sellers played a pivotal role in holding corporations to a high bar for accountability.

A question you might have: how do they identify their targets? They use both traditional and creative tactics. An example of the latter: the aforementioned Muddy Waters (run by Carson Block), sent a team of investigators to visit stores operated by the Chinese company Sino-Forest. Claims about the size and location of its forest assets were found to be greatly exaggerated, ultimately leading to the company's collapse and a significant payout for investors.

Not everyone views short sellers in a positive light, though. Critics argue that they manipulate the market, spread negativity, and profit from the misfortunes of others. In their eyes, short sellers are preying on the weak.

On the other hand, short sellers can be perceived as vital components of the financial ecosystem. They serve as watchdogs against fraud and overvaluation, protecting the market from the dangers of unchecked growth.

Vultures or vital? Likely a bit of both.

Have a great weekend.

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