How to short sell stocks
Short selling is used to take advantage of share prices that are expected to decline. There are a range of ways to short a stock, so it is important to understand how to short sell and which method is best for you.
What does shorting a stock mean?
Shorting a stock, or short selling, is a method of trading that seeks to benefit from a decline in the price of a company’s shares.
With conventional investing, you would buy shares that you believe have a positive outlook and the potential for growth – this is known as ‘going long’ or taking a long position. When you short sell or ‘short’ stocks, you’re looking to do the exact opposite. Short sellers identify shares or markets that they think might be poised for a downswing.
Shorting stocks can help traders to hedge against any potential negative movements in markets that they have taken a long position in. It can also provide a means to benefit from bear markets.
How to short a stock
- Decide whether you want to invest in shares or speculate on their price movements via derivatives
- Open a position to ‘sell’ the stock you want to short
- Monitor the market price to see if your prediction was correct
- If the market fell as predicted, you’d close your position by buying back the shares at a lower price, and profit from the difference in price
- If the market price increased instead, you would close your position by buying back the shares at a higher price, and paying the difference
There are a variety of ways that you can short-sell stocks, and although the steps to short-selling are broadly the same, the specifics of the process will depend on the method you use.
To make things easier to understand, let’s say that Rio Tinto shares are currently trading at £40 per share, which you think is overvalued. In anticipation of the share price falling, you decide to short the stock. The outcome would depend on your chosen method of shorting:
Derivatives are financial instruments that take their price from the underlying market. With derivatives, such as CFDs, you haven’t had to borrow shares from a broker – you are simply speculating on the market price rather than taking physical ownership of the asset.
With either method, you won’t need to pay brokerage fees as you don’t take ownership of the underlying shares. And with share CFDs, you are charged via commission.
- CFD trading involves purchasing a contract to exchange the difference between the opening and closing price of an asset, in this case a stock. You can use a CFD trade to short-sell stocks by opening a position to sell the stock you believe is going to decline in price
Let’s say you had chosen to short-sell Rio Tinto shares via CFDs. Rio Tinto is trading at £40, which means that you could open a position to sell 100 share CFDs at £40 (factoring in a 0.10% commission charge1), which would give you a market exposure of £4000. As CFDs are leveraged, you would not have to put up the full value of the trade, instead you would only need to put up a deposit – if the margin was 20%, you would put up £800.
If the market did fall as you’d predicted, you would close your position by buying 100 shares at the new price of £35 (factoring the commission charge mentioned above). You would then calculate the difference between the opening price and closing price, and profit from the difference: in this case, £40 – £35 = £5 x 100 shares = £500. Any profit to a CFD trade is calculated using the full value of your exposure, not just the deposit, which means that profits can be magnified.
However, if you had been incorrect and the market increased in price, up to £45, you would have to buy 100 shares at the new market price. This would incur a £500 loss as the calculation is based on the full exposure (£4000 - £4500 = £500 loss before commission).
The traditional method of shorting stocks involves borrowing shares from someone who already owns them and selling them at the current market price – if there is a fall in the market price, the investor can buy back the shares at a lower price, and profit from the change in value.
This is typically a practice of large institutions rather than individual investors, but some brokers will facilitate short-selling.
Let’s say that you borrow 100 Rio Tinto shares via your broker and then sell them at the current market price of £40 – taking £4000 from the sale. It is worth noting that you would likely need to pay a fee to borrow a stock to short-sell.
The shares do fall in price as you predicted, down 200p to £38 per share, and you buy 100 shares back at the new, lower price, for £3800. You then return them to your broker to close the trade and keep the 200p difference per share. You would have made a £200 profit (minus any brokerage fees and dividend costs that are owed).
However, if your prediction was wrong and Rio Tinto stock actually increased 200p, you might decide to close your trade to cut your losses. In that case, you’d have to buy the shares for 200p more than you sold them for – incurring a £200 loss (again before accounting for the borrowing costs and dividends that you would still need to pay).
Risks when going short on stocks
Although short-selling might seem straight forward, short-selling can be considered risky for a number of reasons:
- Unlimited loss: theoretically there is the potential for a short position to incur unlimited losses if the underlying stock rises in price instead of falls. However, if you are using derivatives, you can attach stops to your positions to protect yourself
- Being caught in a ‘short squeeze’: this is what happens when the market price rises and short-sellers all rush to exit their positions, driving the price even higher and causing more short-sellers to close their positions
- Unborrowable stocks: there is the potential you may not even be able to find someone willing to lend you the stock to borrow in the first place – known as an unborrowable stock
Aside from the risks of short-selling for the investor, the practice can influence the entire market. If large numbers of market participants decide to short a stock, their collective actions can have a huge impact on the share price of the company. It is not unknown for investors to be banned from short-selling. For example, during the 2008 financial crisis, there was a ban on shorting the shares of certain banks and financial institutions.
- Short selling is the practice of borrowing shares, in order to sell them at the current market value and buy them back once the market has declined – profiting from any difference in price
- Shorting can be used for hedging and speculative purposes
- A method of short selling stocks is CFD trading
- There are risks involved in short selling stocks, such as unlimited loss, being caught in a short squeeze and unborrowable stocks.
If you want to practice short selling stocks in a risk-free environment, you can open a demo account with IG and start testing your CFD trading. Or, if you feel ready to start short selling stocks on live markets, you can open an account and be ready to trade in less than five minutes.
1 For UK stocks this would be 0.1% or £10 online min.
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