From the archive
I make this ‘covering’ [in short selling] sound routine, but it isn’t, and can go horribly wrong – wherein lies much of the risk in shorting shares. In 2005, Porsche began to buy shares in Volkswagen (I know that sounds the wrong way around), to help it ward off a foreign takeover. They kept buying shares over the next three years, and as they did so the share price rose. As it did so, the remaining Volkswagen shares, obviously, kept becoming more expensive, so it became clear that Porsche wouldn’t be able to afford to buy all the rest of them and take full control of the target company. At the same time, prospects weakened for the global car industry. The hedge funders took out their crystal balls and concluded that this meant Porsche would stop buying shares, and so the share price would fall, and they began to short Volkswagen stock. So far, so routine. But what they didn’t know was that Porsche was secretly using Germany’s not so transparent rules to accumulate more and more shares, until 26 October 2008, when Porsche announced that it now owned 75 per cent of Volkswagen, i.e. pretty much all the publicly tradeable stock – most of the rest was, for various reasons, locked up in places where it couldn’t be sold. At which point, the hedge funds shat themselves. Remember, all those shorted shares were borrowed, and had to be bought back and then returned – but where were the hedge funds going to buy the shares to return them, since there was now no stock on the market? Answer: they’d have to pay whatever the seller wanted to charge. In 48 hours, Volkswagen’s share price went from €200 to more than €1000. Hedge funds lost $24 billion betting against Volkswagen and Germany’s fifth richest man, Adolf Merckle (b. 1934, cement, pharmaceuticals), threw himself under a train.