LONDON (Reuters) - Hedge fund short-sellers have hoovered up nearly all available shares in Peugeot (PEUP.PA) in their scramble to bet the French carmaker will be an early victim in an industry struggling to overcome a collapse in European sales.
Peugeot is now one of the most in-demand stocks in Europe for short-selling by hedge funds, with 92 percent of shares available to borrow - the "lending pool" supplied by institutional investors - now out on loan, according to data group Markit.
Such has been hedge funds' rush for Peugeot stock that prime brokers, who provide finance and lend stock to hedge funds, have had to meet some demand from their own supplies. The Peugeot lending pool amounts to 12 percent of the carmaker's 2.17 billion-euro market capitalization. In total 18 percent of Peugeot stock is now out on loan.
Short-sellers include hedge fund Marshall Wace, which holds a net short position of 0.76 percent of the carmaker's total share capitalization. Odey Asset Management holds 2.66 percent, Egerton Capital 0.7 percent and DE Shaw 1.4 percent, according to according to the most recent disclosures.
"The majority of the (Peugeot) lending pool has been borrowed, by a mixture of directional and event-driven funds, at which point stability becomes a potential concern," said Duncan Wilson, head of equity finance sales trading at JPMorgan prime brokerage.
In an auto market where demand is close to a 20-year low - and still falling - Peugeot has been one of the hardest hit by Europe's debt crisis and the ensuing austerity measures curbing consumer spending. The region accounted for 59 percent of its sales volume in 2012.
Once a star French brand, Peugeot is struggling with excess production capacity and mounting losses compounded by the protracted sales slump. It is cutting 10,000 jobs and has already required a capital increase, a 7 billion-euro government loan guarantee and 1.5 billion euros in asset sales over the past year to stay afloat.
Now hedge funds are betting it will have to raise more money or be further damaged by the dire economic climate.
Short-selling means borrowing stocks in the hope the share price will fall and enable the fund to buy them back profitably at a lower value.
However, some funds could have so far lost money on their positions. Peugeot shares, which rose above 7 euros in September, dropped below 4.5 euros last month but have since recovered to more than 6 euros on Friday along with a broader market move.
No-one from Peugeot was immediately available to comment on the short-selling positions.
European demand is set to shrink another 1.7 percent this year to 17.8 million light vehicles according to consulting firm LMC Automotive. By comparison, the U.S. market is set to grow 4.2 percent to 15.1 million vehicles.
"It's appalling. In Europe it's terrible," Savvas Savouri, chief economist at London-based hedge fund firm Toscafund, told Reuters. His firm's short positions include U.S. carmaker General Motors (GM.N), on the grounds its large European operations counter its exposure to better conditions at home.
General Motors expects losses for its European operation, which consists mainly of Opel and UK-based Vauxhall, of between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion for 2012. GM took a 7 percent Peugeot stake in the French carmaker's March share issue.
After Peugeot, the other major European carmaker being targeted by hedge funds is Fiat FIA.MI.
Levels of Fiat stock lending have more than doubled since the end of October [ID:nL5E8NKDDO] - though some of this may have been driven by hedge funds borrowing the stock to give them the option to short, without actually placing the trade. Those levels fell back a little last month when Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said it had no need for a capital increase.
Fiat, which is trying to counter grim European numbers by increasing sales of its luxury Alfa Romeo brand in the U.S. and boosting growth in Asia and Latin America, saw its shares drop from around 4.8 euros mid-September to around 3.4 euros at the end of November. They have since recovered to around 4.5 euros.
Funds with short positions on Fiat include Brookside Capital Management and Pelham Long Short Master fund, according to the website of Italian regulator Consob, while Highbridge Capital is shorting tyre maker Pirelli PECI.MI.
One of the biggest Fiat bears has been Chris Cooper-Hohn, head of activist hedge fund firm TCI, although the firm's position has since been closed, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
In November Cooper-Hohn told a conference in London: "It is a bad company. People look at the net debt of 5 billion euros, ex-Chrysler. We think the gross debt is what matters ... we think it could be nearer to 20 billion euros. We think Fiat needs to do a rights issues as soon as possible.
In total stock lending for the Euro Stoxx 600 Autos and Comp .SXAP index rose to 4.28 percent last week, up from 3.81 percent at the end of October, according to Markit.
Though U.S. and Asian automakers have so far attracted mainly long positions by hedge funds - Toyota (7203.T) in particular has been boosted by a fall in the yen, reducing the price of its exports - some believe the industry's wider woes could throw up further trades.
"In Japan there will be opportunities to short soon," said Toscafund analyst Takis Christodoulopoulos.
Additional reporting by Lionel Laurent in Paris and Martin de Sa'Pinto in Zurich; Editing by Sophie Walker