NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- You don't have to look too hard to find cheap oil-related stocks these days, given the punishment energy companies have taken so far in 2015. But if you're thinking about placing a long bet on Chesapeake Energy (CHK), smart money suggests that you shouldn't.
Sure, crude prices have begun to rebound, but companies that depend on the exploration and production of oil and gas have been forced to reset their businesses to assume lower oil prices going forward -- a painful "new normal" that energy executives must adapt to. The chance that all of these business will succeed -- beyond consolidation -- is not great.
It's in this context that short sellers are betting against Chesapeake Energy: They believe that the Oklahoma City, Okla.-based oil producer will be one of those that fails in its attempt to stabilize its business. If the bears are right, they stand to make lots of money. The question is: Should retail investors follow suit. And if so, at what price?
As you can see on the chart below, Chesapeake stock closed Wednesday at $15.23, down 1.42%. Already, Chesapeake investors are down more than 22% in 2015, grossly underperforming the 1.54% gain in the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE). And you've bought and held CHK over the past year, you're down 45%, against just 13% declines for the XLE. (CHK was down again Friday, trading at 14.71 mid-morning in New York.)
But here's the thing: Despite the previous underperformance of the stock, bears are betting that it will fall even further, as evidenced by the recent 3% rise on CHK short interest. And with Chesapeake having traded in a 55% gap (between $13.38 and $29.92 in the past year), that takes a lot of guts.
Even if the shorts are wrong, there's nothing about Chesapeake Energy stock that screams value today, given that the company is projected to lose 23 cents per share this year and 6 cents per share in fiscal 2016. The company is operating in an environment where the best it can do is deliver results that look "less bad," making it a solid short bet.
As of the end of April, Chesapeake had almost 152 million shares sold short, up 3% from around 147 million shares in the two weeks prior. And that 3% climb (as of the last reporting period) was preceded by an 8% climb at the end of March when short interest stood at around 135 million.
Moreover, considering that Chesapeake had around 72 million shares sold short at the end of January, the bears have more than doubled their bets in the last four months. This indicates that market sentiment on the company -- even as oil prices have begun to stabilize -- is heading in the wrong direction.
As it stands, more than 20% of the company's float is being shorted as of the last reporting period, suggesting the so-called "smart money" are betting that the stock will fall over time. So while Chesapeake Energy may look appealing given how depressed the shares are from their 52-week high, things can still get worse. Investors would be better served looking for value elsewhere.