Earnings Optimism Draws Short Seller Wrath in U.S. Equities

  • Consumer discretionary shares are the bears' latest target
  • Short interest in ETF tracking industry highest in 20 months

In the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, it’s companies where expectations are running highest for the coming earnings season that short sellers are most interested in.

Take the collection of automakers, publishers and retailers that fall under the consumer discretionary rubric, whose earnings are forecast by analysts to jump nearly 10 percent in the first quarter. Short interest in an exchange-traded fund tracking the group is at the highest level in 20 months, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Bearish positioning in the ETF can also be seen in the ratio of puts to calls, which reached the highest since August 2014 earlier this month.

You might think bears would have better targets in a market where overall net income is projected to decline by 9.3 percent in the first three months of 2016, the worst contraction in more than six years. But this time around it’s companies with the highest bar to clear that are luring the shorts.

“People are wary of earnings disappointment, relative to where expectations are,” said Chad Morganlander, a Florham Park, New Jersey-based money manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., which oversees about $170 billion. “Profit assumptions have been overextended.”

Investors in discretionary are concerned that consumer demand is decelerating as global growth weakens, according to Morganlander. With China mired in an economic slowdown, gross domestic product for the entire world is expected to grow 3 percent in 2016, down from last year, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The bears may be onto something, going by history. The consumer discretionary sector has seen profit growth forecasts trimmed heading into the reporting season in each of the last three quarters. In last year’s final quarter, analysts cut their profit expansion forecast of 10.3 percent in half within two months.

Valuation concerns may be adding to pessimism, according to Morganlander. The group has surged 15 percent since reaching a 14-month low on Feb. 11, the biggest gain since November 2011 for a period of that length. It’s trading at 18.3 times forward 12-month earnings estimates, compared to 17.3 times for the entire S&P 500. Consumer discretionary companies in the S&P 500 gained 0.6 percent at 4 p.m. in New York.

Short interest on the SPDR Consumer Discretionary Select Sector ETF sits at 11 percent of shares outstanding, the highest since July 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Markit Ltd. As recently as March 18, traders owned three bearish contracts on the ETF for every single bullish one, the most since August 2014.

“Gas prices that are creeping higher change investor psychology,” said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird, which oversees $110 billion. “The political situation in the country is unstable and uncertain, which also adds to consumer concern. Perhaps some folks are trying to hedge those bets by shorting consumer stocks.”

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