4 Shorts That Went Terribly Wrong

by: Mark Krieger

What a difference a week makes. Before last week, the market seemed to have legitimate concerns regarding a lackluster home market, Greece’s debt problems, sky-high gasoline prices and weak employment numbers. Now, after a stunning week which tacked on an impressive 5.4% gain to the DJIA, Mr. Market now appears not to have a care in the world and is giddy as a schoolboy on Christmas morning.

Why the fickleness? It appears that Mr. Market is at its old games again by sucking the little guy back in. Most investors tend to buy when markets rise and sell when they fall, essentially doing just the opposite of what a merchandiser is supposed to do. The retail investor is charging back, hoping not to miss the next big move; the problem is, he already has, as it is probably too late to chase equities higher after reaching such overbought conditions.

I’ll admit I have been more than crushed on my short positions, and certainly feel the vice squeezing my head further, but I expect this parabolic move will eventually be met by a huge selling spree. The good news is my list of short positions have dwindled, as I was able to cover OPEN at a nice profit, while both BIDU and CRM were closed out for marginal losses. The bad news is I am still short the following rocket stocks:

CMG: The Burrito maker rallied 7.6% on the week and now sports a market cap at just a hair under $10 billion. Trading at staggering 46 times 2011 estimates of $6.81, CMG’s current valuation is downright frightening and already exceeds the analysts' median one year price target by more than 10%. The most optimistic analyst has pegged a $375 price target, in contrast to a $195 target assigned by CMG’s most bearish observer. Insiders have been taking advantage of the shares' meteoritic rise (almost tripling the past year) by selling $84 million worth of their own shares in the last six months alone.

The metrics seem stretched, with a price earnings to growth ratio of 2.47 and a paltry return on investment of 2.1% for new investors, but these momentum situations seem to stretch further than even the most bullish investors can imagine, so shorts could experience additional carnage along the way to eventual redemption. It could be argued that the stock is priced for perfection and then some when considering that a rosy 24% earnings gain in 2012 is not a slam dunk by any means. Final thoughts: “if you can’t beat em, join em” - time to cover and go long, as this one could easily hit $325, because the market can stay irrational longer than most shorts can stay solvent.

NFLX: The stock seems to shrug off any negative news quickly (GOOG possibly acquiring Hulu or the Sony (NYSE:SNE) content issue as examples). The bullish logic is that subscriber growth will continue to develop at such a torrid pace and these issues will be minor in nature, so in effect, the greater fool theory remains alive and well. On a valuation basis, the shares sell at a multiple of 60 times 2011 estimates of $4.44 and 41 times 2012 estimates of $6.54. The trouble is, the bar is getting set precariously high when assuming 47% earnings growth.

Looking at one year analyst target prices from the perspective of opposite extremes, NFLX’s biggest bear has set an $80 price target in contrast to its most optimistic apologist at $316 per share - this analysis alone would prompt the reasonable investor to deduct that the shares at these levels present much more risk than reward. Bottom line: stay short, but place a protective stop at $280.50

PCLN: Although the shares had lost nearly $100 from their highs, they have quickly recovered to within 5% of that mark. The travel portal’s rate of earnings growth is expected to drop by nearly 50% in 2012 from 50.7% to 27.1%, thanks mainly to the law of larger numbers, but at 26 times 2011 estimates of $20.33 and a PEG ratio of only 1.07, the stock does not seem overvalued. In fact, the analyst mean target of $628 implies another 20% clip of appreciation in store. The problem is, as the company’s expectations get higher and higher, Mr. Market seems to be setting this company up for an eventual fall. Final assessment: Stay clear of this one until after earnings are released.

AMZN: Making an all time high, despite bad news from California on the sales tax front, and a less than spectacular earnings report, just shows how resilient this stock really is. Investors seem to be keying in on AMZN’s revenue growth rather than its earnings growth, and how can you blame them when considering revenue is slated to grow 36% in 2011 versus a 2% drop in earnings? At 85 times 2011 estimates of $2.47 and a PEG ratio of nearly 3.0, the stock seems like no bargain, but the company is forecasted to increase earnings a whopping 52% (a bit on the optimistic side?) in 2012 to $3.82, computing to a more realistic forward multiple of 55.

In the meantime, despite a doubling of its stock price, analysts are still showing some love with a median target price of $215, just 2% higher than the current quote. AMZN’s market cap, believe it or not, is just $4 billion shy from reaching the magic $100 billion milestone mark, so I doubt Mr. Bezos will be putting up any one million share blocks up for sale, until after that event occurs. Recommendation: Never remain short after a new all time high has been reached. This one is destined to go higher, in the near term, but an eventual implosion is probably in the cards.

Disclosure: I am short AMZN, CMG, NFLX.