Short selling stock is a technique that turns the old stock market quite literally on its head. Instead of following the golden rule of the traditional market ‘buy low, sell high’, short selling consists of buying high and selling low. When short selling stocks – also called ‘going short’ or ‘shorting’ – the investor speculates a decrease instead of an increase in the price of shares. The concept may seem counter-intuitive and confusing at first, but if we take things from the beginning, you’ll see that it is in fact not that complicated at all.
The Art of Short Selling Stocks
In traditional stocks trading, you buy stocks at a low price and wait for their price to rise before selling them to make a profit. In short selling, you do not buy stocks to begin with, but rather you borrow stocks from your broker to sell when the price of a stock is high. The stocks you borrow come from the brokerage’s inventory, from another customer of the brokerage, or even from another firm. The profits from the sale of the borrowed stocks go into your account. Eventually you will have to replace the stocks you borrowed back to your broker, known as ‘closing’ the short, by buying back the same number of stocks, called ‘covering’. The money to buy the stocks back come from that money you earned when you sold the stocks. Thus the trade is profitable for you only if you manage to buy the stocks back at a lower price than which you sold them.
For example, if you borrowed 1,000 shares from your broker, you will have to close your short by returning the 1,000 shares back. If you sold the borrowed shares for $10 each, then you will have $10,000 in your account. If the price of the stocks falls and you buy them back from the market at $5 per stock, you will only spend $5,000 of your account to replace the stocks, and the remaining $5,000 will be your profit from the short trade. If, however, the price of stock rises, you will have to buy the stocks back at a higher price, causing you to lose money.
Typically, you can hold a short for as long as you want, but interest rates make keeping a short account open for a long time unprofitable. Since brokerages may not actually own the stocks that they lend out, you may be forced to cover the borrowed sooner than you want, if the owner asks for his shares back. This is known as being called away, but happens only rarely.
Since stock prices are generally expected to rise with time as a company expands and increases its wealth, short-selling can be quite difficult to do. The technique typically hinges on quick shifts in the market during which a price falls temporarily, only to rise back up again to higher levels soon thereafter. Short-selling, therefore, requires precise timing and exposes the investor to an unlimited loss potential should the price of the stock rise instead of fall.