Short interest

Short interest: How Apple Inc. got mugged in April

May 28, 2013: 7:23 AM ET

Shorts swarmed the stock just before the March quarter earnings report.

Short interest peaked between April 15 and April 30.

Short interest in Apple peaked between April 15 and April 30.

FORTUNE -- The last time we looked at a chart like the one at right, which tracks the number of Apple (AAPL) shares NASDAQ traders, betting that the stock will fall, have sold but yet covered or closed out, Mal Spooner was bemoaning the fact that short interest in Apple had swelled from 8 million shares in April 2012 to 20 million in April 2013.

Spooner, a Canadian money manager and financial columnist, likened the burst of short selling to a "swarming," a violent street crime where "an unsuspecting innocent bystander is attacked by several culprits at once."

"I've never claimed to be all that smart," he wrote at the time, "but I just can't figure out how aggressively attacking a company's share price, selling stock that the seller doesn't even own, for the sole purpose of transferring the savings of innocent investors into one's own coffers... is a noble thing. Isn't it kind of like a bunch of thugs beating someone up and stealing his/her cellphone declaring it was the loner's own fault for being vulnerable?"

Little did he know what the thugs were about to do. Between April 15 and April 30, short interest doubled again to a record 41.6 million shares. It was during that fortnight -- on April 19, two trading days before Apple's Q2 2013 earnings report -- that Apple's share price touched $385.10, its lowest price in 16 months.

On that day, the stock's value, as measured by EPS ex-cash, was lower than it was in the fall of 2000, when you could buy Apple for a split-adjusted price of $7 a share. (See Apple has never been so cheap.)

The good news for Apple investors is that the muggers have since backed off a bit. By May 15, Apple's short interest had fallen to 26 million shares, down 37.6% in the space of two weeks.

Falling short interest, just to be clear, means fewer traders or funds betting that the stock will go down.

  • How Apple Inc. got swarmed

    Short interest in Apple shares increased 153% in the space of a year.

    FORTUNE -- "Swarming," writes Mal Spooner, a Canadian money manager and financial columnist, "is the term now applied to the crime where an unsuspecting innocent bystander is attacked by several culprits at once... Because swarming at street level involves violence, it is criminal. However in financial markets it is perfectly legal."

    And that, he says, is what happened to MORE

    - Apr 9, 2013 9:53 AM ET
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