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Short sellers ganging up on oil companies

Traders smelling blood—or maybe oil—in the water have piled into shorts against energy-related companies.

Recent data regarding which companies market participants are betting against show a strong movement against those whose fortunes are tied to the slump in oil prices.

Specifically, exploration and production companies saw short interest jump 12 percent in the aggregate for the final two weeks of 2014, according to a breakdown from Sterne Agee analysts using New York Stock Exchange data. Short selling happens when traders borrow shares of a stock, sell them to a third party and repurchase later in hopes of pocketing the difference when the shares drop in value.

Oasis Petroleum led the sector, with a 45.9 percent increase, while Pioneer Natural Resources saw short growth of 45.2 percent and Chesapeake Energy increased 31.9 percent.

During the time period, energy stocks broadly on the S&P 500 fell 12.6 percent while the index's SPDR Oil and Gas Exploration exchange-traded fund slumped 8.9 percent and West Texas crude tumbled 40 percent. The fund's top holdings are Laredo Petroleum and EP Energy.

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Spikes in short interest, though, sometimes can serve as contrarian buy indicators. Overheated sentiment on either side of a trade often indicates that a change is coming.

However, Sterne Agee energy analyst Tim Rezvan thinks the shorts are on the right side of the oil trade for the foreseeable future. Crude fell further on Tuesday, mostly recently trading below $46 a barrel, and is off 13.7 percent so far in 2015.

"You could see it break $40 and it wouldn't be a surprise in the short term," Rezvan said in an interview. "Until we see signs of healing and the right steps are taken, we're in for some more pain."

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Not everyone agrees.

The U.S. Oil Fund ETF has attracted investor money this year, with the fund ranking fourth in fund flows at $413 million, according to ETF.com. The fund uses derivatives to track the front-month oil contract and is getting pounded, down 15.4 percent year to date. Also, despite its underperformance the Oil and Gas ETF is pulling in money as well, drawing a net $279.5 million in inflows even though its performance also has been dismal, down 9.8 percent.