"Short Selling of Banks Accelerates as New Financial Stress Test
By Edgar Ortega and Elizabeth Hester
May 4 (Bloomberg) -- Short sellers, the bane of Wall Street executives last year, are back.
The number of Citigroup Inc. shares borrowed and sold short increased sixfold since Feb. 27, the day the U.S. Treasury announced it would convert some of its preferred shares in the New York-based bank into common stock.
Short interest in Bank of America Corp., MetLife Inc. and American Express Co. climbed more than 40 percent in the same period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In total, short sales of the 18 publicly traded financial companies undergoing government stress tests were twice as high on April 15 as they were at their peak last year in July, two months before Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.
“People are either positioning themselves for the potential of a preferred-to-common conversion, or they have an increased perception of risk in these companies,” said Andrew Baker, an equity strategist at Jefferies & Co. in New York.
The Federal Reserve plans to release results of the tests on May 7. At least six of the 19 firms under review will require additional capital to absorb losses if the recession worsens, people briefed on the preliminary results said last week.
Short sellers borrow shares and sell them hoping to make a profit by replacing the stock after prices fall.
Douglas Cliggott, manager of the Dover Long/Short Sector Fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, said he is shorting some bank stocks on expectations they will lose value as earnings deteriorate. New York-based hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb is betting that financial firms needing more capital will exchange preferred shares for common to bolster their balance sheets. He’s seeking to profit from the price difference between the two securities by buying preferreds and shorting the common.
Citigroup is in the process of converting as much as $52.5 billion of preferred, including $25 billion held by the government. Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, the largest U.S. lender by assets, will change $25 billion to $45 billion of preferred shares into common to raise capital, said Richard Staite, an analyst at Atlantic Equities LLP in London, in a report to clients last week.
Wells Fargo & Co., based in San Francisco, and three smaller rivals -- BB&T Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc. and Regions Financial Corp. -- also may have to turn their preferred shares into common as a result of the stress tests, according to analysts at New York-based Creditsights Inc.
To entice investors to accept common shares, companies may offer preferred holders a premium to the current price, said Phillip Jacoby, a managing director of Stamford, Connecticut- based Spectrum Asset Management Inc., which oversees $6 billion. Citigroup is offering holders of the $2.04 billion 8.5 percent Series F preferred $21.70 worth of common shares, 24 percent more than their price of $17.48 as of May 1.
Tangible Common Equity
By exchanging preferred for common, banks would be able to increase their tangible common equity, or TCE, a measure of how much capital a firm has to withstand losses. The financial yardstick strips out intangible assets, goodwill -- the premium above net assets paid for acquisitions -- and preferred stock, including shares issued to the U.S. Treasury.
Regulators want TCE to equal about 4 percent of assets, up from an earlier target of 3 percent, people with knowledge of the situation said last week. Seven of the banks under review have ratios of less than 4 percent, company reports show.
“Banks are going to need more capital,” Jacoby said. “Treasury doesn’t care about dilution. All they care about is financial mass and loss-absorption ability to offset what could be more nonperforming loans and writedowns in the future.”
The increase in short selling occurred as the S&P 500 Financials Index posted its best two months since 1989, when Standard & Poor’s started keeping records. The 80-member index has surged 41 percent since Feb. 27.
Stephen Wood, who helps manage $151 billion as senior strategist at Russell Investments in New York, said the stress tests will narrow the breadth of the rally.
“It will end up resulting in a differentiation of the shares,” Wood said. “It will be a vicious cycle for the companies that are not doing well. The share price will go down in anticipation of dilution with the issuance of new shares.”
Fuld, 63, told congressional investigators on Oct. 6, less than a month after Lehman filed the biggest bankruptcy in history, that short sellers played a role in a “storm of fear” that led to the demise of the 158-year-old firm. Mack, 64, helped persuade government officials in the days following Lehman’s collapse to suspend short selling, which he said was sending his New York-based firm’s shares into a free fall.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission imposed an emergency ban on bearish bets on more than 900 finance-related companies for a three-week period that ended Oct. 8. The agency also tightened requirements on delivering borrowed securities and imposed rules that require hedge funds to privately report short sales to the agency.
The SEC will convene a meeting May 5 to discuss proposals for restricting short sales, including an outright ban when a stock’s price declines.
“The ban last year crushed a lot of hedge funds and their investment strategies,” Perrie Weiner, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview. “There are much cooler heads now. They are looking at ways by which they can say, ‘We’ve got a better regulated market, and we are on the road to recovery.’”
Short Interest Rising
Short interest rose after Feb. 27 for 14 of the 18 publicly traded companies under review by the Fed, according to Bloomberg data. Citigroup’s increase was the biggest at 509 percent, followed by New York-based insurer MetLife at 66 percent, American Express at 44 percent and Bank of America at 42 percent. The average increase for the 18 companies was 47 percent. It was 201 percent excluding Citigroup.
Representatives for Citigroup, Bank of America, MetLife, and American Express declined to comment.
Detroit-based GMAC LLC, the auto and mortgage lender that received a $6 billion government bailout and is one of the 19 companies undergoing stress tests, wasn’t included in the Bloomberg data because it isn’t publicly traded.
The total short interest for the 18 firms as of April 15, the last date for which New York Stock Exchange data are available, was 2.1 billion shares, or 7.1 percent of those available for trading. That compares with 1.05 billion shares on July 15, or 4 percent of those available for trading.
‘Winners and Losers’
Excluding Citigroup, which accounted for about half of the increase, the total stood at 866.1 million shares on April 15, higher than all but one period last year and 2.9 percent shy of the July peak.
The number of shares sold short in Morgan Stanley totaled 52 million on April 15. While that’s down 12 percent since Feb. 27, it’s higher than the 45.3 million shares on Sept. 15, when Mack was lobbying lawmakers and regulators for a ban.
The large short positions will fuel volatility in stock prices when regulators announce the results of the stress tests, said Matthew McCormick, a fund manager at Cincinnati-based Bahl & Gaynor Investment Counsel Inc., which oversees $2.1 billion.
“With that massive amount of short interest, what those traders are saying is that they feel this process is not going to be managed well,” said McCormick, whose firm doesn’t own any bank stocks. “There are going to be definitive winners and losers, which is exactly the opposite of what the government wanted to do.”
Loeb’s Third Point LLC, which oversaw $1.8 billion as of April 1, was among investors shorting Citigroup stock and buying the preferreds. While the bank’s delay in completing the exchange has eroded his returns, Loeb told investors last week that he expects to reap gains when other banks swap preferred for common stock.
“We expect to see more opportunities in this area as restructurings create more movement in markets,” Loeb told his investors in an April 28 note. He confirmed the authenticity of the letter and declined to comment further when contacted by Bloomberg News.
Cliggott, whose fund beat 97 percent of its peers last year, according to Bloomberg data, said he’s short New York- based American Express and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. because of his outlook for diminished earnings for the two firms. He unwound his short positions in New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo, saying the outcome of the stress tests for those banks is “too big of a wildcard.”
“There are a fair number of people in the marketplace who believe many financial stocks are extremely expensive given the rapid contraction of earnings,” Cliggott said, citing the decrease in leverage in the industry as well as deterioration in consumer credit. “The government has added tremendous uncertainty about the future of the U.S. financial sector.”To contact the reporter on this story: Edgar Ortega in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; Elizabeth Hester in New York at email@example.com"