Is it time to dump your shares in the big miners?

Readers may have seen an article in Fairfax media this morning on the growing interest from short sellers in miners like BHP Billiton Limited (ASX: BHP).

The article quotes a variety of sources and points out that short-sale interest in Rio Tinto Limited (ASX: RIO) shares was at 3% in mid-February, the highest it has been since December 2012. Rio’s short interest was 2.8% of its total float as of 23 March this year, according to Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) figures.

BHP’s short interest was similarly elevated, at 1.8% in mid-February, also reportedly the highest it’s been since December 2012. By contrast, short interest in Fortescue Metals Group Limited (ASX: FMG) has been falling recently, down from 12% a year ago to 5.7% last week.

Analysts at Macquarie Bank were also quoted for their opinion which stated the recent rise in prices for commodities like iron ore and copper was driven by little more than sentiment. It looks pretty clear that Rio and BHP shares could be set for a fall again – but then this will be nothing new to shareholders who have seen share prices move in accordance with commodity prices for, well, ever!

How much is at risk?

That should be the real question – are potential future share falls likely to be significant enough to justify holding off on a theoretical investment, or accelerating your sale plans? Over such a short time frame, I doubt it.

BHP shares are down 40% in the past 12 months, from $27 to $16.86 today. They’re up around 12% from when commodities started jumping in January, from just under $15.

Rio shares are down 25% in the past 12 months, from $55-ish to $42.69 today. They’re up around 20% from a low of $36.50 in February.

FMG shares are up 30% for the year, from just under $2 to $2.55 today. They’re up around 50% from January prices of $1.60ish.

BHP and Rio really don’t have a lot at stake as a result of the recent commodity price rise or an impending evaporation of recent price rises – they made money at both levels and have serviceable balance sheets and capable management. Their short-sale interest is miniscule compared to that which repeatedly decimated Myer Holdings Ltd (ASX: MYR) and Slater & Gordon Limited (ASX: SGH) – both companies had well north of 10% of their scrip shorted at times.

Fortescue is a different story, as its debt makes it a riskier beast at lower prices, despite management’s continued success in cost-cutting. Significantly more of its share price could be at risk in a price crash, and short interest is high enough to make an impact on its shares.

In all honesty though, if you were comfortable owning or buying commodity shares at the start of January, you should be comfortable continuing to hold – though whether you’ll achieve market-beating returns is another story.

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Motley Fool contributor Sean O'Neill has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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