Short Selling, or Selling Something You Don't Own

Money can be made in the equities markets without actually owning any shares of stock.

Short selling involves borrowing stock you do not own, selling the borrowed stock, and then buying and returning the stock only if and when the price drops. It may seem intuitively impossible to make money this way, but short selling does work. That said, it is not a strategy recommended for first-time or new investors.

Because of the risky nature of short selling, certain protections have been put into place.

Key Takeaways

  • Short selling involves borrowing stock you do not own, selling the borrowed stock, and then buying and returning the stock only if and when the price drops.
  • Because of the risky nature of short selling, certain protections have been put into place, and short selling is not recommended for novice investors.
  • Short selling can only be done with a margin account set up with a broker that must have 100% of the short sale proceeds plus another 50% of the short sale value in the margin account.
  • The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires that you keep at least 25% of the total value of the equities in your account as maintenance margin at all times.


Protections

First, shorting can only be done with a margin account, which needs to be set up by a broker. While the rules and regulations of margin accounts vary, all require an initial minimum equity commitment—usually $5,000. But that's just for opening an account. If there's a stock you want to short, you must have 100% of the short sale proceeds, plus another 50% of the short sale value in your margin account.

For example, if you sold short 100 shares of XYZ stock at $20, you would need to have the full value of that sale, $2,000, plus an additional $1,000, in your margin account at the time.

Additionally, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires that you keep at least 25% of the total value of the equities in your account as maintenance margin at all times. Many brokerage firms require an even higher percentage to protect themselves and you, their client, from potentially devastating losses.

Short Selling and Bold Borrowing

To recap, the object of short selling is to sell a stock and then buy it back at a lower price. Any profit an investor makes is on the difference between those two prices.

Let's say Joe Investor believes XYZ's stock—currently selling at $35 a share— is going to drop in price. Joe takes a short position on XYZ and borrows 1,000 shares of the stock at the current market rate. Five weeks later, XYZ stock falls to $25 per share, and Joe decides to purchase the stock. Joe's profits are going to be $10,000 ($35 - $25 x 1,000), less any brokerage fees associated with the short.

Short selling comes with some rules set by the SEC, such as the uptick rule that prohibits short selling if a stock has fallen by 10% or more in one day.

Historically speaking, short selling is risky because stock prices increase over time. Theoretically, there is no limit to the amount a stock price can rise, and the more the stock price rises, the more will be lost on a short.

For example, assume Joe takes the same short at $35, but the stock increases to about $45. If Joe covered his short, at this price, he would lose $10,000 ($35 - $45 x 1,000) plus any fees. But imagine how much he would lose if XYZ's stock price went up to $100 per share or even higher.

On the flip side, profits have a calculable limit. Suppose Joe takes the same short with the same stock and price. After a few weeks, XYZ falls to $0 per share. The profit from the short would be $35,000 minus fees. This gain represents the maximum that Joe can make from this investment.

How Does Short Selling Work?

Short selling involves an investor believing that a certain stock will drop in price, then borrowing that stock from a broker via a margin account, selling that stock at the current share price, and then buying the stock once the share price falls, and then returning the borrowed stock to the broker with those newly purchased shares. The investor profits from the difference between the price the shares were sold and the lower price in which they were bought.

Is Short Selling Risky?

Yes, short selling is risky because of the fact that an investor can have unlimited losses. If an investor buys a stock, the most they can lose is their initial investment as the share price can only fall to zero. Theoretically, on the other hand, a stock can go as high as possible and returns can be unlimited. And that is the risk with short selling. In short selling, to close out your position, you have to buy back the stock. If the price keeps going higher and higher, you will have to pay whatever the new high price is to close out the position. This will be more than the price you sold the shares at. In addition, you have to pay margin in the account to keep the position open.

How Do You Borrow Stock to Sell Short?

To borrow stock to sell short you must first open a margin account with a broker. The account needs to then be funded by the legally required amount. Once you place the short-sale order with your broker, your broker will borrow the shares, either from their own portfolio or they will borrow them from other sources, such as another client or another broker. Once the broker has the shares in hand they will sell the shares and deposit the funds into your account.

The Bottom Line

Short selling is a sophisticated investing technique best left to experienced investors with well-honed, instinctive market skills and fairly strong risk tolerance. While the losses are limitless, the gains are not.

Article Sources

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  1. Code of Federal Regulations. "12 CFR § 220.12," Page 17.

  2. Financial Industry Regulation Authority. "Margin Regulaiton. Overview."

  3. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Investor Bulletin: Understanding Margin Accounts."

  4. Securities and Exchange Commission. "SEC Approves Short Selling Restrictions."

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