short selling as an investment tool (II): hedged vs. unhedged

Short selling is involved a number of hedging strategies.  Short sellers, however, like any investors, can run both unhedged and hedged positions and portfolios.

Unhedged

It’s important to distinguish between a hedged position and a diversified position.  Both are ways of reducing risk.  But they’re not the same.  Diversification is having three cows in case one stops giving milk.  Hedging is having one cow but taking out an insurance policy in case the animal drops dead.

You can have a diversified portfolio consisting solely of short positions, just as you can have one that is made up completely of long positions.  In both cases, you’re at least somewhat protected against the risk that one or two positions go wrong.  But in the former case, you’re still exposed to the possibility that the overall market rises sharply.  In the latter, you still have the risk of a sharp market decline.

Dyed-in-the-wool short sellers run unhedged short portfolios.  Operating this way means taking on a lot of risk, and requires a person who is temperamentally suited to the short side and has a considerable degree of skill. The reason is the more open-ended possibility of loss if the positions move the wrong way. But the structure is pretty straightforward.

You can have as an objective either to have the names you’re short to lose money in absolute terms, or simply to underperform an index like the S&P 500.

Hedged

It’s much more common for short positions to be components of a hedged portfolio, that is, one that includes long positions as well.  Three ways to do this:

1.  One of the oldest instances of hedged portfolios is risk arbitrage, a merger and acquisition strategy, where a manager typically buys the stock of the target and sells the acquirer short, after a deal is announced.  More about this in a post next week.

2.  Another is the original hedge fund, what would be called today a market-neutral strategy, where the manager holds equal dollar amounts of both long and short equity.  If you were to read the marketing literature for this kind of portfolio, the managers might say things that would lead you to believe that by doing so they have hedged away the risks associated with overall market movements.  Maybe so.  Personally, though, I think it’s very hard for a manager not to let a directional bias–his thoughts about where we are in the business cycle–seep into both long and short active positions.  In other words, if you think the market is going down, you’d be short cyclicals and long defensives, and vice versa.)At the very least, performance has two components:  (out)performance of the long positions against the index pus (under) performance of the shorts.

3.  What are called pair trades have become popular over the last decade or so, both with high net worth individual investors and with modern hedge funds (which, to my suddenly curmudgeonly eyes, have nothing more than a fee structure in common with the traditional ones described in the last paragraph).  Pair trades consist of two stock ideas, one long and one short, typically both in the same industry and probably covered by the same industry analyst–who is the one suggesting the trade (and hoping the management of the company on the short side doesn’t find out).

The concept is to reduce the active bet you’re making to one about the relative operating efficiency of two companies in the same or allied industries.  In theory, factors relating to the strength of the global economy or the health of the industry involved are taken out of the equation this way.  Like the market-neutral strategy, gains or losses are supposed to come from what’s different about the two members of the pair.

Examples from the recent past might be:

Long Toyota, short GM

Long HP, short Dell

Long McDonalds, short Starbucks

or even

Long Wal-Mart, short Target (weak economy)

Long Target, short Wal-Mart (strong economy)

In the first two cases, the contrast is between strong management and weak management (of course, Toyota turned out not to be so strong in the end).  In the last three, and very clearly in the last two, strength/weakness of the economy has snuck back in.

My thoughts

Pair trades—small positions only!—while riskier than simple long positions and requiring careful/continual monitoring, strike me as okay for individuals to try their hands at.  The rest of the short-related world–hedged or not–should be left to professionals.

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