Fast-money bears are feasting in the new-year equity selloff as traders recalibrate bets on the path of Federal Reserve policy.

A basket of the most-shorted stocks dropped 1.3% Wednesday, its sixth straight session of declines, after better-than-forecast data on retail sales and housing sapped faith that interest-rate cuts are imminent. Down in all but two days in 2024, the group of disliked companies has fallen 11% over the stretch, marking its second-worst start of a year since the global financial crisis.

For now, the slump is a boon to bears who are bold enough to venture new bets after being burned last year. Hedge funds have been reloading on shorts, with positions rising on nine of the past 10 sessions through Friday, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s prime brokerage unit. Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s trading desk also observed a “noticeable” increase in shorting activity.

Hedge funds are “starting to re-gross and grow single stock shorts” after November and December’s surprisingly strong markets, Bobby Molavi, a managing director at Goldman, wrote in a note earlier this week. “Early action does point to a richer stock picking environment.”

Of course, hedge funds aren’t the only ones benefiting from shorting. Broadly, short sellers are up 2.8% this year, data compiled by S3 Partners show, with bets against names like health-care platform Agilon Health Inc. and real estate investment trust Medical Properties Trust Inc. yielding the highest profits.

Rising anxiety about everything from a conflict in the Middle East to rising 10-year Treasury yields to a mixed start to earnings season pushed investors away from stocks with shaky fundamentals and into companies with bullet-proof finances. A quartile of Russell 1000 stocks with the highest debt relative to total assets — which include stocks like Hertz Global Holdings Inc. and Avis Budget Group Inc. — is on pace for the worst month since August relative to a similar quartile with the lowest burden, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

“A recent rally had investors add longs to their books and cover short positions that weren’t working, but the moods have changed since then,” Joseph Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading LLC, said by phone. “The market looks like it’s setting up for some sort of downdraft, and when things head south, the weakest companies tend to fare the worst. After such a big rally in 2023, you don’t have any easy passes.”

The budding skepticism among hedge funds stood out in a market when others from retail investors to computer-driven traders have been mostly undeterred by the pullback. In the latest monthly survey from Bank of America Corp., money managers raised their allocation to US stocks to the highest level since late 2021.

Hedge funds are boosting shorts after such bets backfired during last year’s rally, at times adding fuel to the upside as they were forced to buy back stocks and cut losses. While the renewed interest may eventually set the stage for another squeeze, JPMorgan’s team led by John Schlegel suggests the broad-money flows may not be bearish enough to trigger a contrarian signal.

The S&P 500 closed Friday within 15 points of its all-time high reached on January 2022 and has since retreated almost 1%.   

“It’s not clear we’re out of the woods yet and we still think the SPX could fall,” Schlegel and his colleagues wrote, adding the drawdown may reach 5%. 

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.