By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

The stock market's sell-off this week was not great news for most investors. But for folks like Patrick in Michigan, who is looking for information about selling stocks short, even a "bad" week can be profitable.  Here's how:

INTERESTED IN SHORT INTEREST
Where is the best site to find out the actual short position of traded stocks on the exchanges?
Patrick M. -- Northville, Mich.

You can look this up on the Web sites of the two major exchanges. You’ll find short interest for individual Nasdaq stocks here. Over at the New York Stock Exchange, they give you a one huge spreadsheet with enough data to choke your PDA. The problem with these numbers is that they are only updated monthly, and short interest can change dramatically between reports for a smaller stock. Especially when bad news puts a stock on the “short list” for short sellers.

Short interest, for those Answer Desk readers looking for a refresher, is the number of shares of a given stock that traders have borrowed and then sold. This upside-down “short sale” trade lets you profit from the drop in a stock’s price. After you borrow and then sell the stock, you wait for the stock price to fall and then buy someone else’s shares (for less than you got when you sold), returning the shares to the person you borrowed them from. So your profit is the difference between the money you got from selling the borrowed stock and what you paid to buy it back. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear the much more common form of stock trade -- where you buy the shares first, wait for them to go up, and then sell them -- called a “long position.”

The major wrinkle in this short selling strategy is that if the stock goes up, you lose money. And if lots of other traders have “shorted” the stock, and it goes up, you’re all going to want to buy shares at the same time to cut your losses and return the shares to the people you borrowed them from. That’s called a “short squeeze” because all that buying demand can send a stock’s price even higher, forcing more short sellers to buy, driving the price higher, setting off a powerful upward cycle. In the end, short sellers can lose a bundle of money pretty fast. (Technically, this is called “taking it in the shorts.”)

Short selling tends to create the most volatility in stocks that are not very heavily traded, because too much short selling by itself can drive down a stock’s price. Some short sellers have even been known to sell a stock and then spread false rumors about a company to drive the price down. (Technically, this is called “market manipulation” -- and it’s a crime.)

Because a high level of short selling can create this kind of large buying demand, some investors take it as a bullish sign. The problem is you can’t always tell whether the short sellers know more about the stock than the bulls.

MA BELL R.I.P.
Recently SBC and AT&T merged. What is the new stock symbol for the combined company?Richard H. -- Address withheld

The new company, called AT&T, trades under ticker symbol T – the same one that was issued to American Telephone & Telegraph when it was founded over 100 years ago. 

SBC, originally the Southern Bell Company unit of AT&T, was spun off along with the rest of the regional Bell operating companies when the U.S. Justice Dept. broke up AT&T in 1982 in one of the biggest anti-trust cases in U.S. history. After losing control of the nine “Baby Bells” AT&T got the long distance and manufacturing businesses, along with the government’s blessing to get into the computer business.

At the time, before competitors began sprouting like mushrooms and cheap calling plans virtually wiped out profit margins, all this seemed like a pretty good deal for AT&T. The computer business was becoming increasing entwined with telecommunications networks and long distance looked like a great business to be in. The regional companies, by comparison, were seen by some as lumbering, old utilities that would never be able to grow much faster than the population.

What a difference two decades make. Today, long distance service has become a commodity, and the real action now is in serving up ever-more varied data services to local customers. Over the years, four of the regional units gradually merged in one big company called SBC. (Bell Atlantic and NYNEX combined to form Verizon; Ameritech got bought by Qwest, and BellSouth is still on its own.)

AT&T, meanwhile, tried to move in the computer business (buying NCR in 1991) and later the cable TV business (buying TCI in 1997). But nothing seemed to work; most of the company’s assets were eventually sold off. By the time AT&T was bought by SBC last year, the company’s most valuable single asset was probably its name.

Along with that prestigious one-letter ticker symbol.

RATE G-OUCH!!-ING
I missed a payment on my American Express Blue by three days after the due date. My APR was only 9 percent when I got the card. After the missed payment by the due date, my APR went up to 29.9 percent. Is this legal? And if so, how can I get it reduced?
Marco P.,Marlboro, N.J.

You need to dig out the fine print of the card agreement you signed when you opened the account and see what it says (or ask for another copy.) But this kind of rate gouging is not uncommon. Alas, most states, which regulate card rates, look the other way. (More about that in a moment.)

There are two things you can do about it. If you’re a good customer, pay your bills on time, and have good credit standing, give your card company a call and ask to have the rate rolled back to where it was. You’ll probably have to speak to a supervisor, and threaten to cancel the account if they don’t go along with the request. If you’re a good customer, you’re giving them a choice: accept a lower interest rate or lose the account. But sometimes, this works.

If it doesn’t, go find a new card. Look for one offered by a bank or lender based in a state with interest rate caps. There’s a reason Citibank and others moved their credit card headquarters to South Dakota, and it’s not for the great weather. Card issuers are allowed to base their rates on state laws – no matter where the card holder lives – so they’ve gotten states like South Dakota to play ball in return for relocating there and hiring locals to staff the call center. There are still a few states left that bar lenders from charging insanely high rates.

One Web site we like for comparison shopping is www.bankrate.com. The last time we checked, Arkansas had the lowest rate cap.

 

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