Does short-selling make a difference?

Short-selling refers to the practice of selling securities like stocks without owning them in the first place. The seller just borrows the stock eg. from a broker to be able sell it, then tries to buy the stock back cheaper in order to give it back and make money out of the process. In so called "naked shorting" the seller doesn't even make that the security can be borrowed. Needless to say, it is a risky process especially considering the potentially limitless losses a short-seller may have to endure. But it can result in significant profits as well.

The thing that makes this a timely topic is the fact that Italy, France, Spain and Belgium set a ban on short-selling two weeks ago to calm the plummeting stock markets . A couple of days ago, they decided to extend the ban for probably at least till the end of September (see Reuters). Were the bans a good decision? An average person usually finds short selling a crazy, speculative and detrimental practice that should be banned not only for a limited period of time but permanently. Many people working in the field of economics on the other hand think that short-selling makes the market work more efficiently and should never be banned. But does short-selling actually make a difference? And if it does, why, how and when? Let's have a look.

An equal selling offer and a buying bid - this should result in a transaction, right?

Starting with the facts, both the people against shorting and supporting shorting can be seen as having legit points. Firstly, like the layman sees it, trying to make money out of falling stocks is not productive for the society in general. On the other hand neither is regular trading. Secondly, like those who support short-selling assert, shorting does support market efficiency. To have a transactions you need someone who is willing to buy and someone who is willing to sell at that price. Anyone can buy shares even if he or she didn't own any, but to be able to sell, you have to own shares of that certain stock. In other words, without short-selling there is much more potential to make a bet that a stock will rise than to bet that a stock will fall.

This partially unilateral nature of a market without the possibility to sell short has a couple of implications. For one, it means that there will be less people willing to sell. This means that the spread between the buying and selling bids increases, which can be seen as making transactions more expensive - in other words the stocks become less liquid. What's more important is that without short-selling, bubbles could easily become bigger, as many of those who would want to bet on falling prices simply wouldn't be able to do so. On the other hand in the case of falling stocks, selling short can make the prices fall unnecessarily deep. Accordingly selling short can make a difference in terms of how stock prices behave. That on the other hand might affect how tempting it is to start trading on the stock market or how the wealth gets redistributed eg. in times of crises.

But does that matter much to the layman who doesn't have a dime invested in the stock market? It might. Stock market doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather reflects the confidence in economy in general. The bigger the bubble the stock market experiences the bigger the general downfall may be, and the more dramatic effects it may have on the real economy - thus also affecting the life of the layman. In that sense, short-selling can be good for everyone. On the other hand, in a bearish market it might make the overreactions at the lower end more deep and thus cause unnecessary damage to the real economy, which would make short-selling bad in that situation - even though studies haven't found many signs of this.

Short-selling does make a difference for all of us. Especially thinking about overheated markets (like in 2007), I think it's better to always allow short-selling than have it permanently banned. Still, I'm not sure if bans are always a bad idea either. If imposing a ban on short-selling ever makes sense, it should probably be at times when the stock markets are being hit particularly hard - like it now has been.

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