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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lessons from Whitney Tilson short position in Netflix

For those who read Seeking Alpha and other investing websites, the public debate between Whitney Tilson(a self professed 'value investor') and those bullish on Netflix, was very evident. Netflix is the pioneer of streaming unlimited movies via cable for a fixed monthly subscription. And till the last quarter, it was the darling of the stock markets, with its fans refusing to see any competition from cable TV, Amazon, Coinstar etc. It took a brave hedge fund manager Mr Tilson to go short on the stock. But after racking up tremondous losses, and perhaps under investor pressure, he decided to close his position, and swung to the other side!  While the next 2months price movement proved his exit decision right as the market went up even more, his original thesis was validated when Netflix lost nearly 80% of its value and closed at $78 or so. Those interested int he whole story can read it below

The lessons learnt from the episode are quite instructive, and have not been covered in depth on the web(atleast not in any resource I saw).
  1. Market remains irrational longer than you can remain solvent:-Netflix stock did not correct till the company demerged its divisions AND increased the prices. That proved Tilson right, but too late in time as he had closed his positions
  2. Being too ahead of your time is like being wrong :-Tilson closed his positions 7 months before the shares hit bottom! That time difference proved him wrong
  3. Other people's money adds leverage but also pressure on you:-Tilson was not investing his own money but that of his investors. In theory, he did have the absolute power to remain firm, but given the investor pressure to cut his losses, he probably decided to throw in the towel
  4. Social Media/scrutiny/discussion can influence adversely: Unlike other hedge fund managers who restrict their arguments to filings/offers, Tilson decided to write articles and give wide publicity to his idea. While that did invite comments and feedback to refine his view, his letter on closing the position, said that he was influenced by those arguments, which in hindsight were proven wrong. So is this the poster child for not making investing rationale public? I can't say but transparency did hurt in this case.
  5. Friendships sometimes make us do weird things:-Even while attacking the company, Tilson did not attack the CEOs competence, who (coincidently?) was a friend donating to the same charities. While Tilson must have convinced himself of his objectivity and impartial nature, the fact remains that his Feb-11 letter closing the position, referred to the Netflix CEOs letter. Since when did short sellers listen to the company CEO plugging the stock? That is what Tilson did.
All these, especially #1-#3 should be quite instruc

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