It’s a battle between Wall Street pros and upstart investors using social media platforms like Reddit. And at the moment, the upstarts have the upper hand.
At the centre of the tussle is a US video games bricks and mortar retailer called Gamestop, arguably something of a relic in a world moving online.
Shares in the business have skyrocketed, with the price up 92% at the close of play on Tuesday, bringing the gain over the last few trading days to 276%.
It is, says analyst Neil Wilson from markets.com, getting weird: “We are seeing some serious funny business in some corners of the market.”
“Will it end badly?” asks Thomas Hayes, managing director at Great Hill Capital hedge fund. “Sure. We just don’t know when.”
What’s driving up the Gamestop price? Certainly not any good news coming out of the company. Gamestop made a loss of $795m in 2019, and probably several hundred more in 2020.
Instead, an army of savvy social media day traders with access to free trading platforms, and who probably have a lot of time on their hands during lockdown, are swapping tips and ramping up prices via Reddit’s chat thread wallstreetbets.
Gamestop is not the only stock to get their attention – Blackberry and Nokia Oyjis are others – but is currently the battleground between the Goliaths like hedge funds and big investors, and the Davids who make up Reddit’s private punters.
Key to what’s going on is “shorting”, where, say, a hedge fund borrows shares in a company from other investors in the belief that the price of stock is going to fall.
The hedge fund sells the shares on the markets at, for example, $10 each, waits until they fall to $5, and buys them back. The borrowed shares are returned to the original owner, and the hedge fund pockets a profit.
That’s the somewhat simplistic theory, anyway.
Gamestop is the most shorted stock on Wall Street, with some 30% of the shares thought to be in the hands of borrowers. But through their coordinated Reddit action, retail investors are buying Gamestop shares and placing options – pushing up the price and putting a “short squeeze” on the pros.
In this supercharged trading environment, the big Wall Street investors rush back into the market to limit their losses – with the demand pushing up the price still further. One hedge fund, Melvin Capital Management, reportedly had to be bailed out with more than $2bn to cover losses on some shares, including Gamestop.
For many Reddit investors, it not just about making money. They smell blood.
Analyst Neil Wilson says that, from reading the Reddit chat threads, the day traders’ battle with Wall Street is clearly personal.
“Among the many aspects of this story that are strange, what is so unusual is the peculiar vigilante morality of the traders pumping the stock. They seem hell-bent on taking on Wall Street, they seem to hate hedge funds and threads are peppered with insults about ‘boomer’ money.
“It’s a generational fight, redistributive and all about robbing the rich to give to the millennial ‘poor’.”
But many big investors are refusing to budge and continue to hold their Gamestop stock at rock bottom prices. They believe the tide will turn on Reddit’s herd instinct and Gamestop shares will come back to earth.
“These are not normal times and while the [Reddit] thing is fascinating to watch, I can’t help but think that this is unlikely to end well for someone,” Deutsche Bank strategist Jim Reid said.
Tears and headaches
For stock market veterans it’s an example of the madness of speculative trading that can only end in tears. And for regulators, it’s a headache, as they are the one’s who should be cracking down on market manipulation.
Jacob Frenkel, a former lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the main US financial regulator, said: “Such volatile trading fuelled by opinions where there appears to be little corporate activity to justify the price movement is exactly what SEC investigations are made of.”
However, other experts believe Reddit’s legion of investors represent a generational shift in attitudes to money and use of new technology.
“I don’t think this is a fad,” said John Patrick, a fund expert at VanEck. “A retail trader will not lean on Wall Street to manage their money and I definitely now see an antagonistic relationship between the old guard [Wall Street] and individual traders who are on the rise,” he said.
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