Jan 27, 2009
Q&A
Does it make sense to lend securities to speculators who are driving down prices and contributing to the volatility in the markets? Sure, the revenue from lending is nice, but if security lending pushes down stock prices, the net contribution maybe negative.

EFF: The evidence that short-sellers actually know something about market prices is weak. And even if they do, they only push prices more quickly to lower equilibrium levels, so they have little effect on the returns of long-term investors.

KRF: I think there are cases in which short-selling can have a real effect. Assume, for example that half the time short-sellers actually know something and half the time they don't. If other investors cannot tell which case is which, prices don't fall enough when short-sellers know something and they fall too much when short-sellers don't know anything. The market will eventually figure it out and prices will move to the correct level, but there can be real effects in the meantime. If the shorted firm is a financial institution, for example, counterparties may view the depressed price as evidence that the firm is in trouble and take their business elsewhere. Similarly, the firm may find it difficult or impossible to rollover its maturing debt. And note that these real effects occur even if the shorts had no real information. Their bet that the price will fall can be self-fulfilling.

Of course, the argument is symmetric in a couple of ways. First, the fact that shorts don't know anything in some cases implies that prices initially don't fall enough when they do know something. Second, and more important, overly-optimistic investors can push prices up in the same way that overly-pessimistic investors push them down. In this case, informed short-sellers make markets more efficient. Let me emphasize that I am not calling for general rule against short-selling or for us to stop lending securities. In general, I think the benefits of short-selling are far bigger than the costs, but I do think there can be costs.

 
ABOUT FAMA AND FRENCH
Eugene F. Fama
The Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business
Kenneth R. French
The Roth Family Distinguished Professor of Finance at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College
This information is distributed for educational purposes and should not be considered investment advice or an offer of any security for sale. This article contains the opinions of the author but not necessarily Dimensional Fund Advisors and does not represent a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Dimensional Fund Advisors is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed. Past performance is not indicative of future results and no representation is made that the stated results will be replicated.

Eugene Fama and Ken French are members of the Board of Directors for and provide consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.