GLOBAL - Short selling activity by hedge funds has rotated out of equities, as a rally in lower quality companies over the past year has come to an end, and into corporate bonds as spreads have tightened.
The volume of short selling of equities fell by 38% over the 12 months, according to a study by short selling analysts Data Explorers. Over the period, global shares rallied by 51%, and the FTSE All Share is up 64% from its lows a year ago.
Further analysis showed hedge funds' shorting of corporate bonds over the same period grew by 39%.
Tim Russell, manager of Cazenove's UK Absolute Target Ucits fund and UK Equity Absolute Return equities hedge fund, said: "Hedge funds on average tend to play market beta rather than alpha.
"That is what we are seeing at the moment. Many people are giving up running short books."
He said many European hedge managers are running large net positions of up to 60% net long. "This is as much about managers running out of shorting ideas to protect the portfolio," he said.
Andrew Weir, senior analyst at fund of hedge funds Stenham, said: "Over the past 12 months as markets have calmed down and the world has stabilized this would have caused managers to put on less short positions and run more net long exposure."
Weir said the global stimulus, low rates and general recovery led to a rally in low quality companies - many of hedge funds' favourite shorts. "That would have become a really painful trade, so a lot of hedge funds would have got out of the way."
Morten Spenner, chief executive of fund of hedge funds International Asset Management, said managers in IAM's universe increased their net market exposure - how much money they have at stake after subtracting short positions from long ones - from 9% to 22% over the past year.
At the same time they also increased their gross exposure - their total capital at stake in markets - from 81% to 121%.
Spenner said: "During 2009, we did hear from managers that some found it tricky to short after the second quarter. As we all saw, there was a lot of momentum in the markets.
But he said: "We are seeing 2010 characterised as more of a stock pickers market and so there is more appetite for shorts, even if it will still be difficult."
Weir added: "Over 12 months there was a lot of indiscriminate rallying, but from now on there will be potential for it to be not so indiscriminate and there will be opportunities to start trading low quality companies on a stock selection basis."
He said the increase in short selling of bonds was explicable because spreads have "tightened massively".
"There is an asymmetry in shorting credit markets because credit instruments do not trade that much above par, so the downside is limited. As bonds approach par, the downside decreases," Weir added.
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