At, we believe in buying great companies for the long term. However, not every company commands a fair price, and many trade for far more than they're actually worth.

In these situations, investors actually have a chance to benefit from a stock's plunge. When shorting a stock, an investor bets that price of a stock will go down, and profits from any downward movement. The practice is risky, inviting unlimited losses while only providing limited upside. However, shorting wildly overvalued companies can also help balance your portfolio against the wild market swings we've seen in previous years.

To find shorting candidates, we screened for stocks with a high percentage of their publicly traded shares sold short. One such stock is Ebix, with a current short interest of 32.99%. That's pretty high, but let's sees how it compares to other companies selling solutions to the financial services industry:

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

We consider short interest greater than 5% to be a warning sign. While plenty of great companies can carry high short interest, that red flag is your invitation to dig for troubling information that the company's buyers might be missing. In Ebix's case, the 33% short interest on its float is massive, far exceeding that of other peer companies.

When evaluating short candidates, start by assessing their near-term financial health. To check on Ebix's immediate health, we looked at its current ratio, which simply divides its current assets by its current liabilities. The more assets a company has -- cash, inventory, and accounts receivable, among others -- the more easily it should be able to pay off its obligations in times of financial distress.

Ebix's ratio in this category is solid, at 1.13. We look for a current ratio greater than 1.0:

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Once we've assessed a company's short-term financial health, next we determine whether it's overstating its earnings. Earnings are meant to show a smoothed-out picture of a company's profit potential over time. However, they're prone to various assumptions and manipulations. Companies can aggressively recognize revenue, or show high earnings even while they pour excessive amounts of cash into capital expenditures that are slowly accounted for over time.

For this reason, it's best to compare free cash flow to earnings. Free cash flow accounts for the actual cash flowing out of or into a business, and then subtracts actual capital expenditure costs over a given period of time. In the last 12 months, Ebix's cash flow has been $39 million, while its earnings were $48 million.

Ebix's free cash flow has trailed earnings on average. In this case, it's a good idea to open up company filings and explore what's causing this cash flow lag. If free cash flow consistently underperforms earnings, the company could be overvalued according to its stated earnings. Alternately, it might be recognizing earnings too aggressively, which could lead to free cash flow declines in the future. As a company that's been growing through acquisition, Ebix's earnings naturally accrue suspicion. Growth through acquisition can be a solid strategy, especially in fragmented industries, where a larger competitor like Ebix can apply its scale and sales force. However, acquisitions also make it difficult to analyze a company's core growth.

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Amounts in millions.

One last consideration for shorting a company is valuation. Excellent companies often trade for prices that aren't justified by their business's long-term outlook. Think back to the dot-com bubble: While technology companies like would eventually produce large profits, at the time, they lacked business models and future earnings streams to justify their mammoth market capitalizations.

The PEG ratio is a simple measure of whether a company is excessively valued, comparing a company's P/E ratio to its estimated growth rate. We compared Ebix's expected P/E ratio for the next 12 months with its five-year estimated growth rate. As an investor, you want to find companies trading at P/Es less than their growth rate. As seen in the table below, Ebix currently trades at PEG ratio of 0.99.


Forward P/E

5-Year Growth Estimate %

5-Year PEG Ratio

Ebix (Nasdaq: EBIX)




Bottomline Technologies (Nasdaq: EPAY)




S1 (Nasdaq: SONE)




Online Resources (Nasdaq: ORCC)




Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

With a PEG ratio of essentially 1.0, Ebix looks fairly valued relative to its expected growth. Investors shorting the stock are either looking at other areas of concern, or feel analyst growth estimates have overstated the company's potential. It's likely that investors shorting the company feel that organic growth is much lower than reported growth, and that once acquisitions wind down, Ebix's growth rates will rapidly decline.

The long road to superior shorting
Identifying good short candidates requires diligent research. More importantly, you've got to know where to dig into a company's financial statements. While the measures we showed above are a great start in searching for shorting candidates, red flags like accelerating revenue recognition, aggressive acquisitions to hide underlying financial weakness, and changes in reporting methods can only be spotted by carefully analyzing the notes companies bury deep in their filings.

Finding these opportunities requires skill, but you can do it. That's why John Del Vecchio, CFA, a leading forensic accountant and The Motley Fool's shorting specialist, put together a detailed report that shows you how to spot five serious red flags that can help you detect time bombs in your portfolio and lead you to the next big short. You can get the entire report free by clicking here or by entering your email address in the box below.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Ebix is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on Ebix. The Fool owns shares of Ebix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.