I linked to this summation of Jim Chanos‘s short selling discussion last night, but I loved the post so much I decided to excerpt the most interesting part. According to Chanos (via My Investing Notebook), these four themes come up in great shorting opportunities fairly regularly:
1. Booms that go bust – define boom as anything fueled by debt in which the cash flows produced by the asset do not cover the cost of the debt. The Internet is not a boom since they didn’t have debt. The Telecom Bubble that went along with it was.
2. Consumer Fads – investors like to extrapolate strong growth well further into the future then they should. It’s also a great source of decoration for your office, he’s got a Cabbage Patch Kid next to a George Forman Grill next to a Nordic Trak.
3. Technological Obsolescence – Everyone thinks the old product will last longer than it actually does. Examples were Wang Word Processors (replaced by PCs), Record Stores (replaced by digital downloads). He says the internet is the cheapest way to distribute anything. However people are still renting DVDs by mail, which surprises him (Hint: likely short Netflix!). These businesses always look cheap but the cash flow goes down just as fast as the share price (think Kodak and film).
4. Structurally-Flawed Accounting – beware serial acquirers, they often write down the assets of the acquired firm in the stub period that no one sees. Ask management what the net assets of the firm were on their latest end of quarter and what they were when they were acquired. Most management won’t tell you this, some will, however. But by writing down inventory and A/R they can “spring load” results once the company is acquired. They’re supposed to adjust the purchase price but most don’t.
Chanos notes that the Enron short story (which made him famous on its way to zero) was like ‘one-stop shopping’ for these red flags, it featured conference calls with foul language, mark-to-model accounting, off-balance sheet stuff, etc.
I highly suggest you click over to read the whole post if you want to learn more about short selling and its place in finance.