“One of the funny things about the stock market is that every time one person buys, another sells, and both think they are astute.” – William Feather, American publisher and author
“When thinking about the future, it is fashionable to be pessimistic. Yet the evidence unequivocally belies such pessimism. Over the past centuries, humanity’s lot has improved dramatically – in the developed world, where it is rather obvious, but also in the developing world, where life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 100 years.” – Bjørn Lomborg, Danish author and President of Copenhagen Consensus Center
“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.
American consumers are the driving engine of the US economy – consumer spending is estimated to represent about two-thirds of US economic output. If sentiment surveys and retail sales are anything to go by then the American consumer, and by extension the US economy, is in rude health.
Consumer sentiment, as tracked by the University of Michigan, in September jumped to its second-highest level since 2004.
According to the Commerce Department, US retail sales increased by 6.6 per cent year-over-year in August – running well ahead of inflation. Month-on-month growth, however, was disappointing with August sales only increasing 0.1 per cent over July – whilst somewhat unsatisfactory, monthly comparisons tend to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio and are therefore misleading to read into, in our opinion.
Given the robust retail sales and soaring consumer sentiment, one would expect investors to be all bulled up on consumer stocks. Yet, as we compare the level of short interest across the constituents of the S&P500 Index we find that the greatest concentration of shorts (relative to free float) is in consumer related stocks. Investors remain circumspect about the prospects of consumer focused companies due to the potential impact of (i) rising interests on the disposable income of US consumers, and (ii) escalating trade tensions between the US and China on the companies’ supply chains, which in turn could meaningfully increase their cost of goods.
The below chart shows the average level of short interest (as a percentage of free float) by industry group. (Consumer related industry groups are highlighted in yellow.)
Average Short Interest across S&P500 Index by Industry Group Source: Bloomberg
The above chart shows that all but one of the consumer related industry groups has a higher level of short interest than the average level of short interest for a stock in the S&P500 Index. Moreover, the top three most shorted industry groups are all consumer related.
To further dissect the level of short interest across consumer related stocks, we focus in on the constituents of the SPDR S&P Retail $XRT and iShares US Consumer Goods $IYK exchange traded funds.
The average level of short interest for $XRT constituents is 7.5 per cent of free float. The most shorted sub-industry groups are food retail (something we have written about recently in The Challenge for Food & Beverage Retail Incumbents), automotive retail, and drug retail.
Average Short Interest across $XRT by Sub-Industry Group Source: Bloomberg
American department store chain Dillard’s is the most shorted stock amongst the constituents of $XRT with short interest making up a whopping 66.2 per cent of free float. The high level of short interest in the stock has not been rewarded by a declining price this year – the stock has generated a total return of 31.5 per cent year-to-date (as at market close on 19 September, 2018).
A further seven constituents have short interests that exceed 30 per cent of their free float, namely: Overstock.com (45.7 per cent), JC Penney (45.7 per cent), GameStop (39.6 per cent), Camping World Holdings (39.3 per cent), Hibbett Sports (36.4 per cent), The Buckle (36.0 per cent) and Carvana (31.3 per cent). The performance of these stocks has been more mixed with online retail company Overstock.com down 58.8 per cent year-to-date while online car dealer Carvana has generated an astonishing 208.3 per cent return year-to-date.
Many of the heavily shorted retail stocks appear to us to be the companies investors view as the mostly likely to be “Amazoned” in the near term.
Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents Source: Bloomberg
Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $XRT Constituents Source: Bloomberg
Generally, being short retail stocks has not been rewarding this year. The price return of $XRT is 14.2 per cent year-to-date versus 9.6 per cent year-to-date for the S&P500 Index.
Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $XRT Constituents Source: Bloomberg
Note: Chart excludes Dillard’s and Caravan
The average level of short interest for $IYK constituents at 6.2 per cent of free float is lower than for $XRT constituents but still significantly higher than the average for the S&P500 Index. The most shorted sub-industry groups are tires & rubber, home furnishings and housewares & specialties.
Rising mortgage rates and the home buyer affordability index at ten-year lows are the likely reasons for the high levels of short interest in the home furnishings and housewares & specialties segments.
Average Short Interest across $IYK by Sub-Industry Group Source: Bloomberg
Only two stocks amongst the $IYK constituents have a short interest to free float ratio exceeding 30 per cent: B&G Foods (32.7 per cent) and Under Armour (31.8 per cent).
Generally, being short consumer goods stocks has been more rewarding than being short retail stocks. $IYK is down 3.5 per cent year-to-date. (We wrote about our concerns relating to the consumer goods sector last year in Unbranded: The Risk in Household Consumer Names.)
Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents Source: Bloomberg
Total Return Year-to-Date of the Top 30 Most Shorted $IYK Constituents Source: Bloomberg
Scatter Plot of Short Interest versus Year-to-Date Total Return for $IYK Constituents Source: Bloomberg
There is, we think, no clear playbook when it comes to heavily shorted stocks. Some portfolio managers we have interacted with in the past have occasionally gone long ‘consensus shorts’. Their track record is middling; they have done very well at times but also been burnt badly at other times.
Our approach is to identify heavily shorted stocks where we have a differentiated view on the prospects of near term earnings, valuation or the potential for the company to be acquired and to go long those stocks. (These lessons have been hard learned over time as in the past we have found ourselves far too closely aligned with consensus – as George S. Patton is known to have said: ‘If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’.)
In the instances our positioning and views prove correct, the high level of short interest acts like leverage and greatly amplifies returns in a relatively short amount of time.
Earlier this year we went long Under Armour based on our view that consensus earnings expectations had been deflated to such a degree that there was very little chance for the company to disappoint – with the stock price languishing at multi-year lows we deemed there to be little downside even if the company disappointed. As it transpired, the consensus view was indeed far too bleak and the stock quickly re-rated higher as the company outdid lowball expectations.
More recently, on 24 July, we went long and remain long kitchenware and home furnishings company Williams Sonoma $WSM. Short interest for the stock stands at over 20 per cent of free float, the company generated a best-in-class operating return on invested capital of 18.4 per cent in 2017 and trades at around consensus forward price-to-earnings of 15.4 times.
The retail and consumer goods sectors remain our preferred areas to search for heavily shorted stocks where we may have or develop a differentiated view.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.