Should short selling be banned?
Yesterday it was announced that the short selling ban in France, Italy, and Spain for financial stocks would be continued; there’s also an indefinite short selling ban in Belgium. What is this and does it make sense?
Short selling is mathematically equivalent to buying the negative of a stock. To see the actual mechanics of how it works, please look here.
Typically people at hedge funds use shorts to net out their exposure to the market as a whole: they will go long some bank stock they like and then go short another stock that they are neutral to or don’t like, with the goal of profiting on the difference of movements of the two – if the whole market goes up by some amount like 2%, it will only matter to them how much their long position outperformed their short. People also short stocks for direct negative forecasts on the stock, like when they detect fraud in accounting of the company, or otherwise think the market is overpricing the company. This is certainly a worthy reason to allow short selling: people who take the time to detect fraud should be rewarded, or otherwise said, people should be given an incentive to be skeptical.
If shorting the stock is illegal, then it generally takes longer for “price discovery” to happen; this is sort of like the way the housing market takes a long time to go down. People who bought a house at 400K simply don’t want to sell it for less, so they put it on the market for 400K even when the market has gone down and it is likely to sell for more like 350K. The result is that fewer people buy, and the market stagnates. In the past couple of years we’ve seen this happen in the housing market, although banks who have ownership of houses through foreclosures are much less quixotic about prices, which is why we’ve seen prices drop dramatically more recently.
The idea of banning short-selling is purely political. My favorite quote about it comes from Andrew Lo, an economist at M.I.T., who said, “It’s a bit like suggesting we take heart patients in the emergency room off of the heart monitor because you don’t want to make doctors and nurses anxious about the patient.” Basically, politicians don’t want the market to “panic” about bank stocks so they make it harder to bet against them. This is a way of avoiding knowing the truth. I personally don’t know good examples of the market driving down a bank’s stock when the bank is not in terrible shape, so I think even using the word “panic” is misleading.
When you suddenly introduce a short-selling ban, extra noise gets put into the market temporarily as people “cover their shorts”; overall this has a positive effect on the stocks in question, but it’s only temporary and it’s completely synthetic. There’s really nothing good about having temporary noise overwhelm the market except for the sake of the politicians being given a few extra days to try to solve problems. But that hasn’t happened.
Even though I’m totally against banning short selling, I think it’s a great idea to consider banning some other instruments. I actually go back and forth about the idea of banning credit default swaps (CDS), for example. We all know how much damage they can do (look at AIG), and they have a particularly explosive pay-off system, by design, since they are set up as insurance policies on bonds.
The ongoing crisis in Europe over debt is also partly due to the fact that the regulators don’t really know who owns CDS’s on Greek debt and how much there is out there. There are two ways to go about fixing this. First we could ban owning CDS unless you also own the underlying bond, so you are actually protecting your bond; this would stem the proliferation of CDS’s which hurt AIG so badly and which could also hurt the banks holding Greek bonds and who wrote Greek CDS protection. Alternatively, you could enforce a much more stringent system of transparency so that any regulator could go to a computer and do a search on where and how much CDS exposure (gross and net) people have in the world. I know people think this is impossibly difficult but it’s really not, and it should be happening already. What’s not acceptable is having a political and psychological stalemate because we don’t know what’s out there.
There are other instruments that definitely seem worthy of banning: synthetic over-the-counter instruments that seem created out of laziness (since the people who invented them could have approximated whatever hedge they wanted to achieve with standard exchange-traded instruments) and for the purpose of being difficult to price and to assess the risk of. Why not ban them? Why not ban things that don’t add value, that only add complexity to an already ridiculously complex system?
Why are we spending time banning things that make sense and ignoring actual opportunities to add clarity?