Time to Short?

This month, we decided to try something new at The Motley Fool Select, our monthly stock ideas publication. Our writers are usually free to pursue whatever topics they see fit for an upcoming issue. After all, these fellows happen to be bang-up analysts, so the results are pretty pleasing: excellent analysis of some exciting companies. But this time we took a more thematic approach: Each stock idea had to be a short.

Thus, February is Short Month. Get it? Twenty-eight days, short, shorting -- ah, forget it.

We have, of course, presented short ideas on and in The Motley Fool Select before, most recently Tom Jacobs' excellent analysis of ViaSat(Nasdaq: VSAT). But this is different. In this case, all the companies in the issue had to be a short. I think I speak for the other two writers who contributed feature articles -- Tom Jacobs and Matt Richey -- when I say, "It was hard!"

We struggled mightily, but I think the results were well worth it. However, it bears inspection -- beyond our own abilities -- why it was so difficult to put together these three ideas. I have a few observations. First, because we have written about shorts in the past, those we each know best had already been discussed in Select. ViaSat is one, Guitar Center(Nasdaq: GTRC) is another, Sirius Satellite Radio(Nasdaq: SIRI) a third. They would have been much easier to write about because we have analysts who know them -- cold.

Second, many of our best short ideas are fairly seasoned, and they've been pretty kind to us. As I mention in my Select special report, Betting Against the House: Shorting for Profit, my oldest short position is in Net2Phone(Nasdaq: NTOP). It's now trading just a hair above $3. I think it's worth zero, or little more than that.

But since individual investors cannot get shares of companies below $5 to short, it doesn't make sense to write about them. It's sort of like the fishmonger selling flounder at 3 for $1, except he's all out of it. The fishmonger up the street has flounder in stock, but they're $1 apiece. "Why is your flounder three times as expensive," you ask? When I'm out of flounder my price is 3 for $1, too. In other words, if shares are not available, the short case may be ironclad but it won't matter.

The third possible reason is: It may be that, in this time of extreme pessimism, the prices of companies have been so beaten down that there really aren't as many good short ideas out there. I repeat something I said in the special report: The fact that so many people are interested in shorting now may be a sign that this particular apple's been picked.

Now, I'm sure there are hundreds of potential shorts out there, but they're even more difficult than usual to find since so much of the enthusiasm and froth have been wrung out of the market. What I do not wish to imply is that the stock market is due for a rebound. The absence of shorts does not mean that one should go long willy-nilly. But I would say that, while I'm not much on predicting times, I am pretty confident that there are some compelling prices in the market right now.

Another point worth repeating: No investor in the history of mankind has ever failed because he chose never to short a stock. Shorting is risky, and it need not be part of your repertoire. I would still encourage you to think like a short about every company you own, every company you like, or every company you're thinking about owning. If your short mind comes up with a question that your long mind cannot answer, you may just save yourself a bundle by avoiding a mistake.

That being said, there are still some shorts out there and, if you're willing, they present a way to make some short-term money in the market. Sign up for a free trial to The Motley Fool  Select and we'll give you this month's shorting special report, the February issue (released yesterday), and next month's edition where we talk about the best values out there -- all for free.

Bill Mann is editor of The Motley Fool Select.

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