Investing

Traders who bet against stocks made a killing in 2022, as short sellers netted $300 billion

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Traders on the floor of the NYSE, June 24, 2022.
Source: NYSE

Traders who shorted stocks won big in 2022, according to S3 Partners.

Shorted stocks had a return of 30.8% in 2022, said Ihor Dusaniwsky, the firm’s managing director of predictive analytics. That means short sellers outperformed the broader market, which suffered its biggest losses since 2008. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite lost 8.8%, 19.4% and 33.1%, respectively, last year.

U.S. short sellers tallied $300 billion in mark-to-market profits on average short interest of $973 billion, Dusaniwsky wrote.

But even with the huge win in 2022, short sellers still lag in recent history. In the past five years, an average annual return for short sellers was a loss of 4.4% while the Dow gained 6.8%, the S&P 500 rose 9.3% and the Nasdaq climbed 12.5%.

How short holdings performed over the last 5 years

Dow return (%) S&P 500 return (%) Nasdaq return (%) Short return (%)
2018 -5.6 -6.2 -4.7 8.9
2019 22.3 28.9 35.2 -22.1
2020 7.3 16.3 43.6 -27.1
2021 18.7 26.9 21.4 -12.6
2022 -8.9 -19.4 -33.1 30.8
5-year average 6.8 9.3 12.5 -4.4
Source: S3 Research

When an investor sells a stock “short” they borrow shares from a broker and sell them in hopes of buying the stock back later at a lower price. It’s a tactic that does best when the broader market is hurting. Short seller returns came in below the major indexes when the market gained value in 2019 through 2021, but beat the averages when they ended the year down in 2018.

It’s worth noting that the total amount shorted last year was below 2021, when the $1 trillion threshold was broken, but higher than in 2018 through 2020.

Short sellers still needed to be good stock pickers in 2022 as different sectors and individual holdings could produce vastly different results, Dusaniwsky said.

For instance, the best sector to short last year was beat down communication services stocks, which produced a return on shorted holdings of 56.7%. Energy was the worst, and posted a 28% loss on shorted holdings, S3 Partners said.

Short- and long-term performance are typically inversed. That’s because investors usually move short on holdings that they expect to lose value, so energy — which was the only winning S&P 500 sector in 2022 — would not be a target for shorting as investors watched share values rise despite the broader market’s decline.

And choosing sector orientation is “only half the battle” given the variety of stocks within each one. Within consumer staples, for example, Beyond Meat had the biggest return on short selling at 128.2%. French fry producer Lamb Weston was the least profitable in its sector, and lost 43.9%.

Carvana, which was beat down as used car demand slid, had the best short performance of all stocks with at least $100 million in short interest, recording a 377.6% gain.

On the flip side, Madrigal Pharma was the worst to short. Bets against the company lost 345.4%. The stock rallied in December on the back of well-received drug trial data.

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