5 Dec Use shock-and-awe strategy to beat short-sellers

5 Dec Use shock-and-awe strategy to beat short-sellers
Above photo is HSBC Holdings came under attack by short-sellers and its stock plunged.

Warfare campaigns on a massive scale are now few and far between, but skirmishes in the financial world are common. Lives may not be lost, but plenty of corporate blood gets spilt.

A new breed of trader has come to prominence in the past few years, building up big short positions in companies and then trying to herd other investors to drive down their share prices - and reaping a big profit.

"Activist" hedge funds, as they are called, provide what some believe to be a valuable service to investors in exposing the dodgy accounting and corruption at emerging-market companies.

Unless a company mounts a successful counter-offensive, it will find the very life of its share price draining away, as panicky banks cut credit lines and suppliers and customers scramble for the exit.

And this can happen whether the accusations made by the marauding short-sellers hold credence or not.

How, then, should a company under attack fight back if it believes it has been unfairly targeted?

The recent global financial crisis offers a few useful lessons companies should heed.

At the height of the crisis in March 2009, HSBC Holdings came under attack by short- sellers, who drove down its share price by 24 per cent in a single day.

This was despite it launching an attractively priced rights issue to raise US$17.7 billion (S$21.6 billion).

It traumatised the regional investment community so much that one popular stock commentator in Hong Kong even broke down and cried on camera as she reported the bank's share price plunge.

As one HSBC old hand observed at the time, hedge funds had sniffed blood when HSBC announced its rights issue, and gone on a coordinated short-selling campaign to spread panic among investors.

But the global lender never flinched from the challenge, and pressed on with its cash call, confident that its vast legion of shareholders would stay loyal and lend it support when it was needed most.

It was a daring gamble that paid off in a spectacular manner, as the bank's share price made a V-shaped recovery.

This forced investors who had lent out their shares to the short-sellers to recall them to subscribe to the rights issue, or face a big dilution of their shareholdings.

The decisive manner in which HSBC beat back the short-sellers also propelled other beleaguered regional lenders sharply higher and enabled markets to stage a resounding recovery.

Now agricultural commodity trader Olam International appears to be facing a similar predicament. It says it is besieged by hedge funds that it claims are using independent research outfit Muddy Waters as a front to raise issues over its business and finances.

No doubt, it has mounted a robust defence, with a point-by- point rebuttal of the issues raised in a 133-page report published by Muddy Waters last week.

But its share price is still trading at about 9.5 per cent below the level it closed before Muddy Waters fired its opening salvo a fortnight ago.

Olam's debts are also showing signs of distress, with buyers only offering 76 cents to the dollar for its perpetuals - a bond-like instrument carrying a 7 per cent coupon.

As IG Markets strategist Justin Harper noted, some mud appears to have stuck, whether Olam likes it or not. So restoring faith among its banks and investors should be the company's top priority.

Olam should take note of what HSBC did during the global financial crisis, namely launching a deeply discounted rights issue to bolster its balance sheet, given the questions raised by Muddy Waters over its finances.

The willingness of Olam's shareholders, especially blue-chip ones like Temasek Holdings, to part with hard cash to pay for the rights issue would offer a more dramatic confidence boost than the utterances of group managing director Sunny Verghese or the defences put up by analysts.

It would also be a much better strategy than buying back shares, which will only burn up the company's much-needed cash.

And like HSBC before it, any rights issue will force the Olam shareholders who had lent out their shares to short-sellers to recall them in order to participate in it, or risk facing dilution.

Actions speak louder than words. A shock-and-awe approach is needed to scare off the short-sellers besieging Olam's gates.

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