How to Short a Stock — and Why You Shouldn’t

Shorting a stock can be a dangerous and expensive proposition.

Short selling is an investment technique that generates profits when shares of a stock go down, rather than up. The term became more well-known after the release of the critically-praised film, “The Big Short.” Despite being an award-winning piece of cinema, the movie isn’t exactly a lesson on short selling for dummies.

In most cases, shorting stocks is best left to the professionals. Here’s a look at how short selling works and why it’s generally not on the short list of things every new investor should know.

What Is Short Selling?

In Wall Street parlance, you “long” stock if you own it. You “short” stock if you borrow it and sell it. Because you now owe stock to the person who lent it to you, you are “short” the stock, just like you are “short” the rent if your landlord comes to collect and you don’t have enough money to pay him.

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How to Short Sell a Stock

The process of how to short stock is the same as how to buy stock, but in reverse. When you buy a stock, you sell your shares after they have gone up in value, generating a capital gain.

When short selling stocks, first you sell the shares, then you buy them back later. Although the order is reversed, the same principle holds true: if you buy your shares at a lower price than you sold them, you generate a capital gain. Here’s an overview of the process for making a short trade:

  1. Open a margin account, which is needed when buying a stock on margin or short selling a stock.
  2. Ask your broker if shares in the stock of your choice are available for short selling.
  3. Borrow the shares of stock.
  4. Sell the borrowed shares on the open market.
  5. At a time of your choosing, buy the shares back on the open market.
  6. Deliver those shares to the investor/firm that lent you the stock.
  7. Book your profit — or loss — on your tax return.

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Short a Stock

Shorting a stock is a complicated process that can prove expensive to a novice investor. The following are just a few of the reasons why shorting a stock is an investment you might regret:

1. Your Loss Is Theoretically Unlimited

Examples of shorting a stock might help you put this practice into realistic terms. Imagine that you short 100 shares of a stock at $50 per share. Disregarding fees and commissions, you’ll net $5,000.

If you were to “long” the stock — meaning you purchased it outright — the most you could lose is the $5,000 you put in. However, if you are shorting the stock, at some point you’ll have to buy it back.

If the stock has rallied strongly, it might someday be trading at $175 per share. If you buy it back at that level, you’ll pay $17,500 — resulting in a loss of $12,500 — much larger than the $5,000 maximum loss from owning the stock.

2. Shorting Stocks Might Carry Extra Costs

When you borrow things from a financial services firm — including shares of stock — you’ll have to pay interest. You might also be charged a loan fee. Interest rates on margin loans can be high. Charles Schwab, for example, charges as much as 8.825 percent, as of Jan. 22, 2018.

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3. You Can’t Use the Money

When you short a stock, the sale proceeds must remain in your account to cover the cost of your future buyback of the stock. Additionally, Federal Reserve regulations require posting 50 percent of the cost of the trade to your account. This means if you short a stock that generates $10,000 in proceeds, you need to deposit an additional $5,000 into your account.

4. You Might Face a Margin Call

If you short a stock that goes up in value, you’ll have to deposit additional money into your account, known as maintenance margin. Securities regulators require a minimum 25 percent maintenance margin, but most financial services firms require 30 or 40 percent. This means if you short a stock that goes up to $10,000 in value, you’ll get what’s known as a “margin call” to deposit an additional $2,500 at least, and most likely $3,000 or $4,000.

5. You Could Be Forced to Buy Back

Although rare, if the firm or investor you borrow your stock from decides they want to sell it, they can call it back from you at any time, known as a “buy-in.” You’ll be forced to buy back the stock at the current market price so you could deliver the shares to the lender.

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