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Short-selling: A step-by-step guide.

People have been shorting stocks since the early 1700s. It’s basically a way of betting against a company. It’s extremely common, and part of the fabric of Wall Street. But how, exactly, does it work?

Step 1:  You've got to be pretty sure that a company’s stock is gonna go down. Let’s say it’s ACME stock, and you suspect that the bad publicity from Wiley Coyote’s interminable failure is going to soon take its toll.

Step 2:  Before you think the stock is going to go down, you (technically, your stock broker) will borrow some of that stock. 

Step 3:  Sell it. That’s right – sell the stock that’s not even yours. So, let’s say ACME stock is at $1,000 a share, you now have $1,000. 

Step 4:  Wait for the stock price to tank. During this time, you can count your $1000. Or smell it. Or perhaps you prefer to roll in it. But remember it’s not yours to keep.

Step 5:  Does the stock actually tank? Congratulations.  Proceed to Step 6. Does the stock....rise? You might want to sit down before you proceed to Step 7.

Step 6:   Now that the stock has sunk like you (wisely) knew it would – let’s say to $1 a share – you buy it back for $1. You keep the remaining $999 you had before. Go ahead.  Smell it again. This time with passion. 'Cause all that cheddar is yours, baby!

Step 7:  Well, the stock has risen. Let’s say to $1,500. Unfortunately, you have to return the stock that you borrowed. And the only way to get it is to buy it back. At the new, higher price. I know, I know. So you take the $1,000 you made when you sold it, and then shell out $500 more, you buy the stock, and return it to whoever you borrowed it from, and it sucks.  This is your life and these are the choices you’ve made.

Step 8:  But wait! Wait! Are you a billionaire with a large personality? Are you convinced that ACME stock is worthless and the continued failure of Wiley Coyote must eventually drive the stock price over a cliff? OMG are you the ROAD RUNNER?? If you answered yes to any of those, you have a final option. Do everything you can to take ACME down. Lobby our own government and foreign ones, take out ads, fund non profit groups. Make it your mission in life. Seriously! People actually do this!

Some interesting notes about shorting: If a lot of people are shorting a company, say ACME, well, that doesn’t look good for ACME. It’s like wearing a scarlet letter. People start asking questions. The stock price can go down, in a sort of self fulfilling death spiral.

 

On the other hand, there are some investors who really like a challenge.  They might actually swoop in to rescue a company whose stock is at risk of being shorted to death, because they sense an opportunity to fix it. If they do fix it, and things start looking up for the company, all the people who shorted it will sprint to the market to buy back the shares they owe various other people and entities. Then that creates a spiral up in price. What is that called? A life spiral? Technically, it’s called a “short squeeze.”

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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