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We Shorted America!

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We Shorted America!

Planet Money

We Shorted America!

We Shorted America!

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We bet against this. Quoctrung Bui hide caption

toggle caption Quoctrung Bui

We bet against this.

Quoctrung Bui

A lot of people buy stocks, hoping they will go up in value. But it is possible to bet in the opposite direction. You can bet against a stock, hoping it will plunge. It's called "shorting" a stock.

Most people don't short stocks, and we wondered why. So we decided to short something ourselves.

We had no idea what to short, or how to do it. So we asked the well-known short seller Andrew Left of Citron Research for advice. He interrupted me before I could finish explaining our plan.

"Don't do it," he said.

It turns out that shorting is not just the opposite of buying a stock. Left rattled off three reasons why we should give up.

  1. "You could lose an infinite amount of money." If you buy a stock for $10, the most you can lose is $10. A stock can't go any lower than zero. But if you short a stock, you can lose a lot more. A $10 stock can shoot up to $50, or $100, or $200. The more it goes up, the more you lose.
  2. "The forces of Wall Street are against you." Over time the stock market tends to go up, not down. By shorting something you are swimming against the current.
  3. People will hate you. Betting that a company's stock will drop can make you unpopular. Left says he has been sued four times. Once, he says, the CEO of a small company got really really mad and sent some guys to sit outside his house in a black truck.

That last one in particular was a problem for us. We're journalists. We can't take sides. We can't bet against a particular company. If there were a section on shorting in the NPR ethics guidelines I'm pretty sure it would say what Andrew Left said: "Don't do it."

We came up with a solution that seemed fair, and fun. Instead of shorting one company, we could short every company. We could short the entire stock market. We could short America!

We ran the idea by another well-known short seller, Sahm Adrangi, who runs a hedge fund called Kerrisdale Capital.

"That's a terrible idea," he said. "It's a great way to lose lots of money."

The U.S. stock market has a long long history of going up over time. And a lot of U.S. companies these days are really global multinational companies. So, he explained, we'd be shorting not just America but the entire planet.

Adrangi did have a name for what we were proposing. He called it "The Armageddon Trade."

Which kind of sealed it for me. I liked the ridiculousness of betting against America, and the entire planet.

Our previous two investments — in a toxic asset and a gold coin — both lost money. So why not?

I called a broker at E-Trade and told him we wanted to short the stock market. It was remarkably easy to do. We used $400 of our own, personal money; in the unlikely event we make a profit, we're going to give it to charity.

(Side note for finance nerds: We shorted SPY, the exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P 500. That's not the whole stock market, but it's close.)

America, your bad news is now our good news. We'll let you know how it goes. We'll be using our @planetmoney Twitter account to tweet how we're doing every day. #sorryamerica

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