U.S. stocks may be hovering around all-time highs, but that doesn't mean that investors feel good about what's happening in the broad market. In fact, on average, investors hate stocks more now than ever before.
For the last six months, total U.S. market short interest, a measure of the short seller bets being placed against U.S. stocks in the aggregate, has been higher than at any other time post-2008. In spite of the fact that stock prices are higher than ever before (or maybe because of it), investors hate stocks.
The thing is, that hate could translate into big gains as short sellers continue to feel the squeeze. As it turns out, the big stocks that short sellers hate the most also tend to hand investors the biggest returns.
That's not just my opinion; the data bear it out as well. Over the last decade, buying the most hated and heavily shorted large- and mid-cap stocks (the top two quartiles of all shortable stocks by market capitalization) would have beaten the S&P 500 by 9.28% each and every year.
Too much hate can spur a short squeeze, a buying frenzy that's triggered by short sellers who need to cover their losing bets to exit the trade.
For our purposes, one of the best indicators of just how high a short-squeezed stock could go is the short interest ratio, which estimates the number of days it would take for short-sellers to cover their positions. The higher the short ratio, the higher the potential profits when the shorts get squeezed.
Today, we'll replicate the most lucrative side of this strategy with a look at five big-name stocks that short sellers are piled into right now. These stocks could be prime candidates for a short squeeze in the months ahead.
Leading things off is $23 billion wireless provider Sprint (S - Get Report) . Sprint has been no stranger to our list of potential short squeezes in 2016 -- it was one of the stocks that made our list just last month. And the squeeze is already underway.
Sprint has rallied more than 31% in the last month, a move that got catalyzed by better-than-expected earnings. For Sprint, the bigger upside could still be ahead; a full 26% of this stock's float is still being held short as I write.
Sprint is the No. 4 cellular carrier in the country, with approximately 59 million subscribers. That subscriber count makes Sprint's fourth-place standing a very distance fourth compared with bigger peers such as AT&T (T - Get Report) and Verizon (VZ - Get Report) , but the firm's aggressive marketing showed huge gains in subscriber numbers and record low churn rates, suggesting that the firm's relatively new management team is actually finding success turning the ship around.
Besides that fundamental progress, another important contributor to Sprint's value is the firm's valuable spectrum position, which it was able to buy using money from 81% owner and primary benefactor Softbank. Softbank's deep pockets mean that Sprint can continue to hemorrhage money for the sake of scale as long as growth numbers keep impressing Wall Street. And with this stock's price trajectory clearly up and to the right at this point, short sellers are already feeling the squeeze.
Auto parts giant AutoZone (AZO) is another heavily-shorted stock that's finding its footing in 2016. Since bottoming back in February, AutoZone has rebounded to the tune of 15.5%, a performance that's been grinding away at short sellers all along the way. Still, short interest is hefty in this car parts seller. AutoZone's short interest ratio of 12.5 implies that it would take more than two weeks of nonstop buying at current volume levels for shorts to exit their positions in this stock.
AutoZone tips the scales as the biggest car parts retailer in the world, with more than 5,600 locations spread across the U.S., Mexico and Brazil. While the firm's bread and butter has been retail DIY consumers, the majority of AutoZone stores now also include commercial centers, which provide parts sourcing for independent auto shops, dealers and other professionals. That exposure to the professional side of the car market has been a valuable growth driver with minimal acquisition costs due to AutoZone's existing expansive geographic footprint.
Demographics have provided an important tailwind for AutoZone. Currently, the median age of a car on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years, the oldest it's ever been. So as consumers work to extend the lives of their automobiles, AutoZone and its peers are well-positioned to keep growing their top-line numbers.
The firm's fourth-quarter earnings results, scheduled for the end of next month, could be an upside catalyst to look out for.
Ironically, Marriott International (MAR - Get Report) is probably a stock that most investors don't hate, despite its huge short interest. Most of that shorting probably has more to do with merger arbitrageurs trying to play the premium in the pending merger with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT) than with bets on Marriott's demise. But ultimately, it doesn't matter why market participants are shorting a stock -- only that they are.
Currently, Marriott's short interest ratio of 19.4 means that it would take approximately a month of buying at current volume levels for short sellers to unwind their short positions. That makes it a prime candidate for a short squeeze.
Marriott operates more than 770,000 rooms and 19 different brands. The firm's biggest marquees are Marriott and Courtyard. The pending acquisition of Starwood would turn Marriott into the biggest hotel company in the world, with more than 1.1 million rooms in total. The purchase also skews the firm's positioning to the upscale side of the spectrum, which has proven valuable in recent years.
Timing is everything here, and the planned closing of the Starwood purchase sometime this month makes a mass exit from short positions look very likely in Marriott. Currently, this stock is sporting the highest short ratio in company history, and more than one third of this stock's float is being shorted. Once Marriott shares start to gain upside traction, the squeeze could happen quickly.
Athletic apparel stock Under Armour (UA - Get Report) hasn't done much this year. Since the calendar flipped to January, this big stock has been in correction mode, handing back about 8.8% of its market value. And short sellers are betting that there's more downside ahead. Currently one in four shares of Under Armour's float are being shorted, making it another textbook short squeeze candidate.
Under Armour has gone from underdog status to become one of the most attractive brands in the hotly competitive athletic apparel business. The firm sells everything from clothing to shoes to sunglasses through a network of 191 company-owned stores, an online channel and thousands of other brick-and-mortar retailers. While much larger rivals such as Nike (NKE - Get Report) have struggled to find meaningful growth, Under Armour has been showing off explosive growth rates of almost 30% annually in the last year.
That growth could have ample runway to accelerate in 2016. The firm's entrance into lucrative lifestyle niches such as golf and hunting are taking it from just a workout apparel brand and stamping the firm's logo on everyday apparel. At the same time, recent investments in consumer-facing technology, such as the purchase of MyFitnessPal last year, should continue to make their ways into products, giving Under Armour an ecosystem that keeps consumers buying products within its lineup.
Keep an eye on where UA goes from here. The shorts are stacked deep in this trade, and any positive news could spark a squeeze.
Garmin (GRMN - Get Report) is another example of a short squeeze in play. Year-to-date, this GPS technology giant has seen a huge rally, climbing almost 50% higher from where it started -- but instead of running for the exits, short sellers have actually spent the last quarter redoubling their short bets. As a result, Garmin currently has a short interest ratio of 12.5, implying that more than two weeks of buying pressure would be needed for shorts to cover their bets at current volume levels.
It's not hard to understand why short sellers have been so anti-Garmin. But it's not hard to see why they're wrong, either. While it's true that the firm's former cash-cow of portable car GPS units has become commoditized, Garmin has replaced that drying business to more profitable niche consumer electronics. For instance, Garmin's wearables have been extremely hot in recent years, particularly in categories such as golf and running watches, where existing portable electronics aren't as useful.
Likewise, Garmin is the leader in the aviation electronics business, manufacturing high-end avionics equipment used for displaying navigation and flight instrument data in aircraft. That big-dollar aviation business gives Garmin the ability to take R&D dollars used for aerospace products and move them downstream to lower-margin offerings. Finally, Garmin's balance sheet is exemplary, with $2.36 billion in cash and investments and zero debt. That big cash cushion protects Garmin's ability to return cash to shareholders in the form of a 3.7% dividend yield.
Garmin took off following second-quarter earnings last week, and that bullish momentum could force shorts to cover, accelerating the squeeze in August.