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Lendable Share Supply a Roadblock to Shorting Strategies?

| | Posted in: Short Selling

Does the limited supply of lendable shares substantially inhibit successful short selling? In the November 2013 draft of their paper entitled “In Short Supply: Equity Overvaluation and Short Selling”, Messod Beneish, Charles Lee and Craig Nichols examine the profitability of shorting U.S. stocks based on the supply of shares available for lending. They note that the short interest ratio (SIR), the ratio of shares shorted to total shares outstanding, masks the importance of lendable supply. SIR may be low either because few investors have negative views, or because the supply of lendable shares is small. They focus on a proprietary measure of stock lendability from Data Explorer Limited called the Daily Cost of Borrowing Score (DCBS), which ranks stocks from 1 (low cost) to 10 (high cost) based on data collected from a consortium of more than 100 institutional lenders. They define stocks with DCBS of 1 or 2 (3 or greater) as easy/cheap (hard/costly) to borrow. They apply basic findings to assess the realism of short-side returns for the following nine published trading strategies:

  1. Gross profitability
  2. Asset growth
  3. Investment‐to‐assets (underperformance of stocks that overinvest)
  4. Net operating assets (underperformance of stocks with high net operating assets)
  5. Total accruals
  6. Payout percentage
  7. Net quarterly profitability (underperformance of stocks with low quarterly net income divided by assets)
  8. Financial distress (underperformance of stocks with high probability of bankruptcy)
  9. Probability of fraud

Using prices, accounting data and lendable/borrowed shares data for stocks representing about 90% of U.S. equity market capitalization during July 2004 through October 2011 (88 months), they find that:

  • On average:
    • 13.7% (86.3%) of stocks are hard (easy) to borrow at any given time.
    • Stocks that are hard (easy) to borrow have less than 10% (about 20%) of outstanding shares available for borrowing.
    • Less than 30% of high-SIR stocks are hard to borrow.
  • Stocks that are hard to borrow tend to underperform the market, and stocks that are hardest to borrow exhibit the worst future returns. 
  • Regarding interaction of lendability and SIR:
    • Both extremely high-SIR and extremely low-SIR stocks tend to be hard to borrow.
    • SIR has marginal power to predict returns for hard-to-borrow stocks.
    • High-SIR stocks that are easy to borrow do not underperform the market.
    • Low-SIR stocks that are easy to borrow outperform the market by 0.8% per month.
  • Short-side gross returns for the nine trading strategies listed above are significant only among hard-to-borrow stocks. In other words, the short-side returns are effectively unavailable.
  • Results based on gross three-factor (market, size, book-to-market) alphas are similar.

In summary, evidence on costs/feasibility of establishing short positions suggests that: (1) SIR is of little use for identifying short positions; and, (2) anomalies that rely heavily on the short sides of portfolios may not be exploitable.

Cautions regarding findings include:

  • Reported returns are gross of trading frictions. Incorporating reasonable trading frictions would reduce these returns.
  • As noted in the paper, SIR may still be useful in identifying stocks likely to outperform (low-SIR, easy to borrow).
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