Why Short Interest in Chesapeake Energy Soared

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In the two-week short interest reporting period that ended February 28, the company with the biggest short interest position at the end of the period was Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK). The oil and gas producer also posted the largest positive change in short interest during the period.

As of February 28, 207.7 million shares were short. That’s nearly 32% of Chesapeake’s total float. Short sellers added 28.34 million to their positions during the two-week period.

The likely cause of the increase was investors’ apprehension about the company’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2017 earnings. The short sellers who piled in before the earnings report were probably not happy with the results, while those who waited until after the results were in may have been relieved.

Chesapeake beat both revenues and earnings estimates for both the quarter and for the year. The company’s stock, which closed at $2.63 on February 21, down about 5% from its closing price on February 15, jumped to $3.20, up nearly 22%, on February 22.

For the full 2017 fiscal year, Chesapeake’s unhedged revenue for oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids rose 16% year over year due to a 3% increase in volume and higher commodity prices. Long investors loved these two numbers; shorts, not so much.

On February 28, the stock gave back about 8% to close at $2.82. That’s what the shorts were looking for. Since then, the stock is back up, closing at $3.10 last Friday.

Chesapeake once traded at around $70 a share, but the company’s strategy of taking on massive debt to acquire huge areas of drilling rights turned sour when natural gas prices dropped from above $10 per million BTUs to under $3. Now unable to “flip” the rights it had acquired, Chesapeake has been forced to sell off assets while trying to keep investing in the business and meet a crushing repayment schedule. That has led to Chesapeake’s becoming a highly volatile stock that trades an average of around 36 million shares a day, about a third more than Apple.

Is it a good short play? Sure, if your timing is right. How about a long-term play? Maybe, but a lot of things have to go right. As the saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Chesapeake stock traded up about 1% Monday morning, at $3.13 in a 52-week range of $2.53 to $6.59. The 12-month consensus price target is $4.32 in a range of $1.50 to $8.00.