NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Call them savvy, or maybe just lucky, short sellers who stepped up their bets against Bank of America ( BAC) rejoiced as shares of the Charlotte, N.C., giant hit their lowest price since May 2009 amid suspicions it may be the next target of WikiLeaks. Bank of America has seen its shares battered in recent weeks as the bank some call the Wal-Mart ( WMT) of banking has been at the eye of the storm over what it admitted were sloppy foreclosure practices. Investors are also concerned about larger-than-expected "putbacks" on billions of dollars in mortgage backed securities Bank of America created and sold to investors. Bank of America had shown signs of recovering from the selloff. After losing some 15% during a few days in mid-October, Bank of America's stock price recouped some of that ground earlier this month as analysts like Morgan Stanley's Betsy Graseck began pounding the table on the stock, suggesting the selloff was overdone. Short sellers appeared to agree with Graseck. They ratcheted back their bets against Bank of America at the end of October. The mortgage-related fears persisted, however, as a Nov. 20 report from Compass Point Research & Trading, highlighted by Barron's, argued Bank of America may face $35.2 billion in mortgage putbacks-- more than Citigroup ( C), Morgan Stanley ( MS), Wells Fargo ( WFC)and Goldman Sachs ( GS)combined. Then, late Monday, Forbes published an interview with Julian Assange in which the WikiLeaks founder boasted that his next bombshell would involve "a major American bank," and provide "a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level." Assange said he "presume
d" the disclosures would "stimulate investigations and reforms." Drawing on an interview Assange gave to Computerworld last year, The New York Times speculated the bank in question may be Bank of America. Bank of America shares finished the day down 3.18% to close at $10.95, their worst close since May 15, 2009. That is welcome news for short sellers, who increased their stake in a Bank of America selloff in the first half of November. Short interest in Bank of America jumped to nearly 111 million shares from 99 million shares at the end of October according to New York Stock Exchange data. Short sellers borrow shares of a security in the hope it will decline in value. They can then buy the shares at the lower price to repay the loan, while pocketing the difference between the new price and the price of the security when they initiated the transaction.
Other financials that saw a big increase in shorting activity on the New York Stock Exchange in the first half of November were BB&T ( BBT), where short interest jumped about 27% to some 33 million shares, KeyCorp ( KEY), where short interest rose 35% to 47 million and Western Union ( WU), where short interest more than tripled, from under 11 million to more than 36 million shares. -- Written by Dan Freed in New York.