Bearish Bets Against Markets Are Surging
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Bearish Bets Against Markets Are Surging

Investors are loading up their bets against a number of big tech stocks, positioning for a reversal.

By KAREN LANGLEY
Wed, Feb 23, 2022 11:18amGrey Clock 3 min

Investors are wagering that the recent pain in markets will intensify.

Stocks dropped sharply in another wild session Tuesday after Russia deployed troops into two breakaway areas of Ukraine, escalating tensions in the region. The S&P 500 ended the day down 1%, extending the losses from its January record to more than 10% and meeting the criteria of a market correction. The index hadn’t suffered a similar decline since February 2020.

Short sellers have been adding to their positions against the SPDR S&P 500 Exchange-Traded Fund Trust, which tracks the broad U.S. stock index, at the fastest rate in nearly a year. Other investors are scooping up at record pace options contracts that would pay out if the recent declines in the stock and bond markets worsen.

The escalating geopolitical tensions come at a time when a surge in inflation and uncertainty about the pace of the Federal Reserve’s expected interest-rate increases have already whipsawed financial markets to start the year. Earnings growth, meanwhile, is expected to moderate from its red-hot pace in 2021, when profits were being compared with their knocked-down levels during the early stages of the pandemic.

The S&P 500 is down 9.7% in 2022, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite has tumbled 14%. In the bond market, benchmark borrowing costs rose above 2% earlier this month for the first time since mid-2019.

“Sentiment is really poor,” said Danny Kirsch, head of options at Piper Sandler, who said he has noticed more clients opting for hedges recently. “People are nervous.”

Short sellers added $8.6 billion to their positions against the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust over the four weeks through Thursday, according to projections from technology and data analytics company S3 Partners. That amount would be the highest since a four-week period ending in early March 2021.

Short sellers borrow shares and sell them, with a plan to repurchase them at lower prices and pocket the difference. Investors shorting the market may be placing an outright bet that stocks will fall or reducing their exposure to a market downturn while betting that particular stocks will outperform.

Jordan Kahn, chief investment officer at ACM Funds, said his firm has been trimming its positions in stocks in one of its strategies while adding to short positions against exchange-traded funds that track the broad market.

Mr. Kahn said he grew concerned near the end of 2021 when he saw that individual stocks were selling off, while the largest stocks kept major indexes afloat.

“That’s kind of a red flag for us,” he said. “We think that the most likely scenario is that those big stocks that haven’t had as big a correction yet will probably at some point play catch-up to the downside.”

Investors are loading up their bets against a number of big tech stocks that led the way higher in recent years, positioning for a reversal. Investors added $1.3 billion to their short positions against Tesla Inc. over the 30 days through Friday and almost $844 million to their bets against Nvidia Corp., according to S3 Partners. They have been trimming their bets, by contrast, against Bank of America Corp., Apple Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc.

Nvidia shares have fallen 20% in 2022 but are still up 63% over the past year. Tesla is down 22% this year but is up 15% from a year ago. Both stocks have skyrocketed since the end of 2019.

Many traders have stepped in to buy the stock market dips, despite the volatility. However, traders have also been tapping other options strategies to profit from the downturn or hedge their portfolios. Three out of five of the most active days for put options trading in history have occurred in the first weeks of 2022, according to Cboe Global Markets data as of Friday.

Call options on single stocks as a percentage of total options activity recently fell to the lowest level since April 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was first spreading through the U.S., according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

For much of last year, turbocharged bullish bets on stocks were in vogue, and many traders rode the S&P 500’s ascent to 70 fresh highs.

Calls give the right to buy shares at a later time, by a stated date. Puts confer the right to sell.

Investors are also hedging against potential declines in the bond market. The prospect of higher interest rates has triggered a rush out of bonds, with outflows from money-market and bond funds on pace to be the biggest in at least seven years.

The number of put options outstanding tied to the iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF, which goes by the ticker HYG, and iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF, or LQD, recently jumped to the highest level on record, according to Barclays PLC.

To some traders, the dour sentiment can be an opportunity to capitalize on any rebound.

Julien Stouff, founder of hedge-fund firm Stouff Capital in Geneva, Switzerland, said he placed short-term bullish bets on stocks in January around the time he noticed many traders growing more pessimistic on the market. Recently, he has taken a neutral stance through the options market.

“This fear normally creates a buying opportunity,” he said.

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To break the day-trading habit that cost him friendships and sleep, crypto fund manager Thomas Meenink first tried meditation and cycling. They proved no substitute for the high he got scrolling through investing forums, he said.

Instead, he took a digital breath. He installed software that imposed a 20-second delay whenever he tried to open CoinStats or Coinbase.

Twenty seconds might not seem like much, but feels excruciating in smartphone time, he said. As a result, he checks his accounts 60% less.

“I have to consciously make an effort to go look at stuff that I actually want to know instead of scrolling through feeds and endless conversations about stuff that is actually not very useful,” he said.

More people are adding friction to curb all types of impulsive behaviour. App-limiting services such as One Sec and Opal were originally designed to help users cut back on social-media scrolling.

Now, they are being put to personal-finance use by individuals and some banking and investing platforms. On One Sec, the number of customers using the app to add a delay to trading or banking apps more than quintupled between 2021 and 2022. Opal says roughly 5% of its 100,000 active users rely on the app to help spend less time on finance apps, and 22% use it to block shopping apps such as Amazon.com Inc.

Economic researchers and psychologists say introducing friction into more apps can help people act in their own best interests. Whether we are trading or scrolling social media, the impulsive, automatic decision-making parts of our brains tend to win out over our more measured critical thinking when we use our smartphones, said Ankit Kalda, a finance professor at Indiana University who has studied the impact of mobile trading apps on investor behaviour.

His 2021 study tracked the behaviour of investors on different platforms over seven years and found that experienced day traders made more frequent, riskier bets and generated worse returns when using a smartphone than when using a desktop trading tool.

Most financial-technology innovation over the past decade focused on reducing the friction of moving money around to enable faster and more seamless transactions. Apps such as Venmo made it easier to pay the babysitter or split a bill with friends, and digital brokerages such as Robinhood streamlined mobile trading of stocks and crypto.

These innovations often lead customers to trade or buy more to the benefit of investing and finance platforms. But now, some customers are finding ways to slow the process. Meanwhile, some companies are experimenting with ways to create speed bumps to protect users from their own worst instincts.

When investing app Stash launched retirement accounts for customers in 2017, its customer-service representatives were flooded with calls from panicked customers who moved quickly to open up IRAs without understanding there would be penalties for early withdrawals. Stash funded the accounts in milliseconds once a customer opted in, said co-founder Ed Robinson.

So to reduce the number of IRAs funded on impulse, the company added a fake loading page with additional education screens to extend the product’s onboarding process to about 20 seconds. The change led to lower call-centre volume and a higher rate of customers deciding to keep the accounts funded.

“It’s still relatively quick,” Mr. Robinson said, but those extra steps “allow your brain to catch up.”

Some big financial decisions such as applying for a mortgage or saving for retirement can benefit from these speed bumps, according to ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in using anthropological research to inform design of financial products and other services. More companies are starting to realise they can actually improve customer experiences by slowing things down, said Mikkel Krenchel, a partner at the firm.

“This idea of looking for sustainable behaviour, as opposed to just maximal behaviour is probably the mind-set that firms will try to adopt,” he said.

Slowing down processing times can help build trust, said Chianoo Adrian, a managing director at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. When the money manager launched its online retirement checkup tool last year, customers were initially unsettled by how fast the website estimated their projected lifetime incomes.

“We got some feedback during our testing that individuals would say ‘Well, how did you know that already? Are you sure you took in all my responses?’ ” she said. The company found that the delay increased credibility with customers, she added.

For others, a delay might not be enough to break undesirable habits.

More people have been seeking treatment for day-trading addictions in recent years, said Lin Sternlicht, co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, who has seen an increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.

“By the time individuals seek out professional help they are usually experiencing a crisis, and there is often pressure to seek help from a loved one,” she said.

She recommends people who believe they might have a day-trading problem unsubscribe from notifications and emails from related companies and change the color scheme on the trading apps to grayscale, which has been found to make devices less addictive. In extreme cases, people might want to consider deleting apps entirely.

For Perjan Duro, an app developer in Berlin, a 20-second delay wasn’t enough. A few months after he installed One Sec, he went a step further and deleted the app for his retirement account.

“If you don’t have it on your phone, [that] helps you avoid that bad decision,” he said.

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