It’s safe to say that short sellers aren’t the most popular people on Wall Street. Many investors see short selling as “un-American” and “betting against the home team” because these sellers are perceived to seek out troubled companies.
Some critics even believe that short sales are a major cause of market downturns, such as the crash in 1987. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence to support this, as other factors such as derivatives andprogram trading also played a massive role, but two years after the crash, the U.S. government held the 1989 House subcommittee hearing on short selling. Lawmakers wanted to look at the effects short sellers had on small companies and examined the need for regulation after allegations of widespread manipulation by short sellers of over-the-counter stocks. SEC officials reassured the public that manipulations hadn’t been uncovered and more rules would be put in place. (To learn more, readQuestioning The Virtue Of A Short Sale and The Uptick Rule: Does It Keep Bear Markets Ticking?)
But despite its critics, it’s tough to deny that short selling makes an important contribution to the market by:
- Adding liquidity to share transactions. The additional buying and selling reduces the difference between the price at which shares can be bought and sold.
- Driving down overpriced securities by lowering the cost to execute a trade
- Increasing the overall efficiency of the markets by quickening price adjustments
- Acting as the first line of defense against financial fraud. For instance, in 2001, famed short seller James Chanos identified fraudulent accounting practices that occurred with the Enron Corporation, an energy-trading and utilities company. The company’s activity became known as the Enron scandal when the company was found to have inflated its revenues. It filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 2001. (To learn more about this scandal, see The Biggest Stock Scams Of All Time.)
While the conflicts of interest from investment banking keep some analysts from giving completely unbiased research, work from short sellers is often regarded as being some of the most detailed and highest quality research in the market. It’s been said that short sellers actually prevent crashes because they provide a voice of reason during raging bull markets.
However, short selling also has a dark side, courtesy of a small number of traders who are not above using unethical tactics to make a profit. Sometimes referred to as the “short and distort,” this technique takes place when traders manipulate stock prices in a bear market by taking short positions and then using a smear campaign to drive down the target stocks. This is the mirror version of thepump and dump, where crooks buy stock (take a long position) and issue false information that causes the target stock’s price to increase. Short selling abuse like this has grown along with internet trading and the growing trend of small investors and online trading. (For more insight, read The Short And Distort: Stock Manipulation In A Bear Market.)