What's a Short Squeeze and Why Does It Happen?

March 28, 2023 Advanced
Beware the risks of short selling before taking the plunge.

Key Points

  • A stock that rallies hyperbolically when there are no obvious current events driving the response, could be experiencing a short squeeze.
  • A short squeeze can potentially be worth trading, but only if you exercise great care.

The aim of short selling is to generate profit from a stock that declines in value. (Short selling involves borrowing a security whose price you think is going to fall from your brokerage and selling it on the open market. Your plan is to then buy the same stock back later—hopefully for a lower price than you initially sold it for—and pocket the difference after repaying the initial loan.) While there are potential benefits to going short, there are also plenty of risks. One big risk is when a bullish catalyst (earnings, news, technical event, etc.) pushes the stock price higher, prompting short sellers to "head for the exits" all at once. As the shorts scramble to buy back and cover their losses, upward momentum can build on itself, causing the stock to move sharply higher. This is known as a short squeeze.

Understanding the short squeeze

What makes a short squeeze so dangerous? Think of it this way: When you buy a stock, the worst thing it can do is drop to zero. But the upside is unlimited. If a stock has a growth narrative and there are enough believers, the share price can go well beyond what looks reasonable by traditional fundamental metrics.

Classic signs of a short squeeze can include:

  • A security has a significant amount of short sellers (short interest) who believe the stock price is going to fall, and then instead the stock price sharply rises, forcing many of these leveraged short sellers to quickly exit their positions, buying back the stock in the face of potentially increasing losses.
  • A dynamic narrative that tries to justify the detachment of share prices from a company's intrinsic value
  • A case for massive growth as well as for financial stress
  • Traders with deep pockets aligned on both sides of the trade, often using options and other leveraged instruments

With GameStop (GME) in 2021 and Tesla (TSLA) in 2020, there were many classic signs of a short squeeze. Traders with short positions were covering because they had to, either because they had sustained large losses or shares were no longer available to be borrowed. In 2022, short sellers targeted troubled companies such as Bed, Bath & Beyond (BBBY) and Carvana (CVNA). In early 2023, the most heavily shorted companies included Coinbase Global (COIN), a cryptocurrency firm, and Occidental Petroleum (OXY).

When a stock suddenly experiences a dramatic climb, with or without good news, it's important to ask yourself, "Who would buy shares up here?" The answer? Someone who doesn't have enough money to hold on any longer, or someone whose pain threshold has finally been crossed.

Proceed with caution

If you're a long-term investor who happens to own a stock that's getting squeezed, it's probably not a good time to trade. Instead of acting on emotions, remember what got you to where you are in your investing journey—and where you'd like to be. If buying a stock that's in squeeze territory doesn't fall within your long-term objectives, you might want to step aside and not trade. If you do decide to venture in, make sure you have no illusions and no misconceptions of the dangers. Understand that when you’re dealing with a stock that’s being squeezed, you're taking a big risk. 

Identifying a short squeeze can be relatively simple—after the fact. The trick is to identify the conditions that could lead to a squeeze ahead of time, and then determine how you might want to play it (or not). 

Shorting a stock is a complicated business. Because you can't sell something you don't own, shorting requires the seller to "borrow" the stock (and pay interest to the stock lender), then sell it. Locating the shares can sometimes be difficult for your clearing firm because of high demand or a small number of outstanding shares.

Measuring a short squeeze can involve a metric called the short interest ratio, a.k.a. "days to cover." It indicates, in days, how long it would take to cover or buy back all the shorted shares. Basically, you divide the number of shares sold short by the average daily trading volume. The more days to cover, the more pronounced the effect can be.

Another measure is "short interest as a percentage of float," which reflects the number of short-sold shares in proportion to the total number of shares available for trading in the public markets. Most stocks have a small amount of short interest, usually in the single digits. The higher that percentage, the greater the bearish sentiment may be around that stock. If the short % of the float reaches 10% or higher, that could be a warning sign.

Consider the fundamentals

If you're buying a stock that seems to be in the throes of a short squeeze, especially at high levels, it helps to understand other potential reasons why the stock might be moving. 

Consider checking the fundamentals. Is there anything that would make you want to own the stock? Are you tempted to buy it because everyone else is? It's important to always do your homework, and remember it's never wise to go all in. A stock that's in a short squeeze may still have a long way to climb, and if you don't think the fundamentals support higher prices, then perhaps you should look elsewhere.

In the case of TSLA in 2020, there were some positive fundamentals underlying the short squeeze, including the company's more consistent profitability and hopes of it being included in the S&P 500 Index (SPX). The stock saw its share price run up to new highs, then decline nearly 60%. 

But then TSLA rallied again and split its shares, and its addition to the SPX became a reality, illustrating that a short squeeze doesn't always have to end badly. Other stocks that were caught up in short squeezes haven't always fared so well, in part because they didn't have the fundamental support. 

Playing the squeeze on the long side?

If you want to trade a stock during what might be a short squeeze—that is, buying a stock with a higher short interest in order to potentially play the upside of a squeeze—here are some things to consider:

  1. Trading such a stock may be okay as long as you understand the risk and how to control it. Whether you make small or large trades, you have to control and limit the risk. Decide how much money you would be comfortable losing in any trade ahead of time.
  2. Don't underestimate how high the stock can go and how long it can take. When a stock gets caught up in a short squeeze, analysts generally expect it to correct eventually, but no one knows to what price and when; if it happens at all. 
  3. If the stock still has very weak fundamentals, yet is moving significantly higher without any real, structural changes in the corporation, then be extremely careful buying on this type of upward momentum. The markets may run out of new buyers willing to pay higher and higher prices and the stock may in the end fall quickly. 

The bottom line

A short squeeze is a high-risk situation and it may cause havoc in the market, but most don't last forever. Most eventually subside.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

Short selling is an advanced trading strategy involving potentially unlimited risks, and must be done in a margin account. Margin trading increases your level of market risk. For more information please refer to your account agreement and the Margin Risk Disclosure Statement.

Schwab does not recommend the use of technical analysis as a sole means of investment research.

All corporate names are for illustrative purposes only and are not a recommendation, offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses and cannot be invested in directly. For more information on indexes please see www.schwab.com/indexdefinitions.

Investing involves risk, including loss of principal.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

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