We don’t like to spend too much time on market anomalies, let alone individual stocks that fall outside long-term asset allocation principles, but this seems to have taken over the headlines last week. Rarely do stock market quirks become mainstream news; in this case, it carried over to market sentiment to some extent and definitely raised trading volumes.
GameStop is a video game retailer, and an example of a stock that has been a favorite recent target of short-sellers. This is largely because of skepticism about the company’s long-term business fundamentals (the stock was selling at under $5/share). Like many brick-and-mortar based retailers, Covid has accelerated the movement to online commerce, and has punished these types of companies—putting their future in greater doubt. Taking a step back, selling a stock short is practically the most negative view an investor can take, since it’s the polar opposite of owning it. It involves borrowing the shares from another party, and selling them in advance, so in essence hoping for a sharp downturn to re-buy (‘cover’) the position later at a lower price. So it’s like buy low, sell high, excepted executed in reverse. Investors like hedge funds (often in long/short or market neutral strategies) take short positions in companies for reasons like weak financial prospects, over-optimistic expectations, or even potential fraud. Naturally, this can be risky, especially if extra leverage is used. Such investors may even convey bad news about a company to weaken its stock price, which sounds odd at first thought, but really is not that much different than Warren Buffet talking about his admiration for Coca-Cola—hoping the stock price goes up.
Based on reports, it seems a group of retail investors (presumably video game fans, who may have taken the GameStop assault personally) decided to take a stand against ‘greedy’ hedge funds and punish them for taking advantage of these troubled companies. In that sense, this has been described as a morality play (and/or these folks have given hedge funds too much credit, as fund failures are far more common than successes, but not as publicized). They’ve gathered support on Reddit, an online news aggregator and discussion site, as well as Twitter and other forums. By buying large amounts of the stock in aggregate, as well as that of a few other market short targets, like BlackBerry, AMC, and Bed Bath & Beyond, the group hoped to create a ‘short squeeze’. This happens when demand for owning long positions turns the tables on and overwhelms short position holders, pushing prices sharply higher, and creating huge losses for the shorts. Short squeezes can result in dramatic market movements, but have been a common practice for centuries, and often involving well-known investors. Similar past cases, the result this time has been a sharp increase in volatility and quick and extreme price jumps for several of these companies. It also creates a feedback loop where the more (unjustifiably) expensive a stock gets, the greater the interest and potential profit in shorting it—if the shorts can hold on long enough, suffering losses in the meantime. Shorting is a risky bet, since a stock can fall to a limit of $0, but losses are theoretically unlimited (the stock price can grow to the sky, and the shorting party has to return the borrowed shares at some point, regardless of price).
In addition, this has been described as the mobilization of a populist effort to ‘re-democratize’ Wall Street. While this sounds dramatic, the backdrop is favorable to something like this happening. With brokerages offering easy-to-use platforms and commission-free trades, and some investors with a lot of free time on their hands due to Covid. This may have turned some trading sites into a ‘gaming’ interface of their own, rather than a vehicle to allocate investments for conventional reasons. It’s been suggested that such activity emerging may be signs of a broader bullishness in equity markets without fundamental basis, but in reality these events have occurred before over the years as one-offs rather than part of larger trends. (It happened with trading in ‘volatility’ strategies a few years ago and famously with silver in 1980.) This type of event is naturally easier with smaller, cheap companies, than large ones with strong mainstream demand. AMC has already taken advantage of the new ‘popularity’ in its stock by issuing more equity.
There have been calls for the Fed to raise Reg T margin requirements to stem this speculative behavior, at least via leverage, but brokerage firms have put on their own limits in some cases. (Bans on GameStop and other stocks have already been implemented by Robinhood, a favored broker for small investors, resulting in its own backlash from those opposing restrictions. A credit crunch on their part seemed to be partially behind it.) Unless this behavior becomes much more widespread and systematic, affecting overall U.S. financial stability, this is out of the Fed’s mandate. The SEC is investigating under the premise that this could be considered organized stock manipulation (through the online messages), along the same lines as a classic ‘pump and dump’ scheme. Insider trading has also been mentioned, but that seems more of a longshot, unless actual company insider information was shared and used. Time will tell whether a formal criminal case of any kind occurs.
This brings up a variety of potential issues, though, including how to regulate (or not regulate) this type of market activity. Many retail investors seem to see this as an ‘us versus them’ moment. On a deeper level, what is considered a fair market? Should smaller investors be protected from themselves? Or, should they be allowed to take the same risks as institutions? Who gets the blame if this turns out badly? How much leeway to give securities markets has been a long-standing question for much of the past century and prior. More regulation tends to pop up if things end badly, which of course they could here, if small investors end up losing their shirts. There is talk again of regulating the shorting of stocks, but the counterargument is that short sellers play an important economic role in efficient market price discovery and keeping supply/demand conditions in balance. Removing these bearish folks could create even more unpredictable stock price behavior, and infuse a tilt toward perpetual bullishness. Of course, this could have its own set of eventual problems.