After a rough first two months of the year for the markets, things finally started to look up in March, though plenty of uncertainty remained. And interest in almost all of the most heavily shorted stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange shrank between the February 29 and March 15 settlement dates. Except for Pfizer, that is, one of this year’s Dogs of the Dow. The number of its shares short skyrocketed during those two weeks.
Leading the downward trend were materials giants Alcoa and Freeport-McMoRan, with double-digit declines in their short interest in the first weeks of the month.
Note that the 10 most shorted NYSE stocks all had more than 120,000 shares short at the end of the most recent settlement period.
After gaining in the three previous periods, Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) short interest surged about 87% to more than 322.67 million shares in the first half of this month. That was 5.2% of the float, and by far the greatest number of shares short in at least a year. The days to cover jumped to about seven as the average daily volume increased. Pfizer was a top pick at both Merrill Lynch and Jefferies during the period, though the share price rose less than 2% in the two weeks. The Dow was up almost 4% in that time. Pfizer shares closed most recently at $30.08, in a 52-week trading range of $28.25 to $36.46.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK) saw its short interest retreat about 2% to more than 199.93 million shares by the middle of March, after plunging nearly 13% in the previous period. Not since last summer have the number of shares short been less than 200 million. The most recent reading was still 30.6% of the float, though. The days to cover dropped to about three as the daily average volume surged to a 52-week high. Former CEO Aubrey McClendon was indicted and then died during the period. Short sellers watched the share price more than double but pull back to an almost 64% gain between the settlement dates. The stock closed Thursday at $4.25, up handily from the multiyear low of $1.50 earlier this year. The 52-week high of $16.98 was seen last May
Sprint Corp.’s (NYSE: S) short interest declined about 5% in the first weeks of the month to the smallest number of shares short so far this year. The approximately 187.34 million shares still totaled 30.0% of the float. The days to cover slipped from more than 12 to about eight as the daily average volume recovered from a year-to-date low. Softbank recently said it will split out Sprint and other assets into a separate company. Sprint’s share price ended the two-week period more than 4% higher, though it was up more than 21% at one point. The S&P 500 rose more than 3% during the two weeks. The stock closed most recently at $3.26, in a 52-week trading range of $2.18 to $5.39.
The number of Vale S.A. (NYSE: VALE) shares short shrank by about 11.25 million in the two weeks to more than 171.42 million. That was the lowest level of short interest in the past year. At the most recent average daily volume, it would take about three days to cover all short positions. The Brazilian miner benefited from a recent iron ore rally, and short sellers saw its shares rise more than 65% but then end the short-interest period less than 22% higher than where they started. The stock closed on Thursday at $4.04, up almost 23% year to date. The share price has ranged from $2.13 to $9.14 in the past 52 weeks.
The short interest in Freeport-McMoRan Inc. (NYSE: FCX) pulled back more than 11% for the second period in a row and landed on 161.76 million shares on the most recent settlement date. That was 14.2% of the miner’s float, and it still would take about three days to cover all short positions. The number of shares short peaked at the end of January at more than 222 million. Freeport continues to shed assets, and the share price ended the short interest period more than 22% higher. It continued to rise afterward and closed Thursday at $10.11. The 52-week low is $3.52, well short of the 52-week high of $23.97.
Rounding out the top 10 were Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA), Transocean Ltd. (NYSE: RIG), Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (NYSE: PBR) and General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE). Ford saw the only rise in short interest during the two-week period, and Alcoa saw the largest decline. Short sellers also piled on SunEdison Inc. (NYSE: SUNE) again, but it has yet to make the top 10 most shorted on the New York Stock Exchange.