Robinhood is a broker. It is a FINRA-regulated broker-dealer. It relies on a clearing house to clear its transactions. The clearing house it uses is the National Securities Clearing Corporation (NSCC), which is a subsidiary of the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC). Thus, Robinhood is a “member” of NSCC. The NSCC is a “designated financial market utility” as defined in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Thus, it is “a financial market utility that the Council has designated as a systemically important.” (“The Council” is a regulatory body created by Dodd-Frank. Its ten voting members include the Treasury Secretary, the Fed chair, and the comptroller of the currency.) NSCC is a provider of “financial market infrastructure” (FMI). As such, it must publicly promulgate rules for the computation of the “Clearing Fund” every “member” must maintain with it. While the FMI is responsible for designing its own rules for determining the clearing fund, they are subject to approval or rejection by the regulatory authorities. In particular, the SEC may prohibit any changes NSCC wants to make in its formula for computing the clearing fund of each member. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has promulgated a set of “principles” that member states should adhere to in regulating payment and settlement systems. These include, “An FMI should maintain sufficient financial resources to cover its credit exposure to each participant fully with a high degree of confidence.”
Thus, the regulatory authorities require clearing houses to require members to keep a risk-adjusted balance with them as a guard against credit risk. In the case of Robinhood, the short squeeze drove this formulaic value up sharply. Robinhood didn’t really have much of a choice about how to respond. It had to both pony up more money for the clearing fund and act to hold off (to the extent possible) further increases in it. Robinhood had to borrow a lot of money to maintain its clearing fund.
Robinhood Markets Inc. Chief Executive Officer Vlad Tenev offered an apology for the company’s decision to temporarily curb trading in some stocks, including GameStop Corp. , on Jan. 28 amid extraordinary volatility.
“Despite the unprecedented market conditions in January, at the end of the day, what happened is unacceptable to us,” Mr. Tenev said after being questioned at a congressional hearing Thursday.
His apology came after House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) interrupted the Robinhood CEO during his opening remarks. Her request was unusual as witnesses are allowed to make opening statements before taking questions from lawmakers.
The Committee on Financial Services of the United States House of Representatives has scheduled a hearing on “recent market volatility involving GameStop [Corporation (GME)] stock and other stocks.” The hearing will be held virtually, starting at 12 noon Eastern Time on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Among those called to testify are Vladimir Tenev, CEO of online trading firm Robinhood Markets, Inc., and Steve Huffman, CEO and co-founder of social media community and online forum site Reddit.1
In addition to singling out hedge funds for criticism, it is likely that Robinhood CEO Vladimir Tenev will face hostile questioning about his company’s actions in the GameStop affair. In particular, the committee memorandum notes that payment for order flow (PFOF) has been Robinhood’s chief source of revenue since its inception and that its decision to restrict trading in GameStop and other stocks may have been influenced by its business ties to investment firms that were caught in short squeezes on these stocks.4
The committee memorandum also notes: “In December 2020, the SEC charged Robinhood with making misstatements about the firm’s receipt of payment for order flow and for failing to comply with its duty to ensure that customer trades were executed on the best possible terms. Robinhood’s failure to satisfy its best execution obligations resulted in more than $34 million in aggregate customer losses. Robinhood was censured and agreed to pay $65 million to settle the action.”
The YouTube streamer known as Roaring Kitty, who helped drive a surge of interest in GameStop Corp , will testify before a House panel on Thursday alongside top hedge fund managers.
The House Financial Services Committee is examining how a flood of retail trading drove GameStop and other shares to extreme highs, squeezing hedge funds like Melvin Capital that had bet against it.
The witness list was announced on Friday by Representative Maxine Waters and includes Keith Gill, who also goes by Roaring Kitty, Robinhood Chief Executive Vlad Tenev, Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin, Melvin CEO Gabriel Plotkin and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.
Many startup founders dream of the day their creation claims the top spot in Apple Inc.’s app store. For Vlad Tenev, Robinhood Markets Inc.’s chief executive, it was more like a nightmare.
Mr. Tenev and his co-founder, Baiju Bhatt, had set out eight years earlier to bring the stock market to a new class of investors. With engineers plucked from Facebook Inc. and other tech giants, they stripped down the trading experience and eliminated commissions, making buying a share of stock about as easy as posting a photo on Instagram.
The Justice Department’s fraud section and the San Francisco U.S. attorney’s office have sought information about the activity from brokers and social-media companies that were hubs for the trading frenzy, the people said. Prosecutors have subpoenaed information from brokers such as Robinhood Markets Inc., the popular online brokerage that many individual investors used to trade GameStop and other shares, the people said.
GameStop shares surged from about $20 to $483 over a period of two weeks in January. The stock has since fallen to around $50. It was fueled by an army of bullish individual traders exhorting one another on Reddit to buy the shares and squeeze hedge funds that bet the price would fall. Traders who bet stock prices will decline are known as short sellers.
A number of Democrats and Republicans united in opposition this week to the strict limits imposed by Robinhood and other online stock brokerages on the purchasing of GameStop and other stocks swept up in a Reddit-fueled trading frenzy.
Disparate members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, were among those who criticized the move, with many calling for hearings that Democratic leaders say will soon take place in both the House and Senate as what began as an internet movement continues to roil Wall Street.
Lawmakers trained attention on the volatility surrounding GameStop’s stock as several others this week. The stock climbed from $4 only a few months ago to more than $400 this week, juiced by an online movement not dissimilar to others that have broadly altered the political landscape in recent years. At the same time, hedge funds that made large bets on GameStop’s stock cratering — known as “shorting” — began to pile up big losses. Then the brokerages instituted limits, leading to charges of collusion with the larger financial entities facing big losses.
When clients trade, especially on margin, they use the broker’s money to play. Imagine a client buys 100 shares of GameStop for $400 a share, using $20,000 of his own money and borrowing $20,000 from Robinhood. If the stock drops from $400 to $120 (as it did on Jan. 28), the client’s position may be sold for $12,000 due to the margin violation, leaving Robinhood trying to collect an unsecured $8,000 debt. Good luck. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands of similar clients. Option trading is worse because the leverage is much greater.
The broker’s risk is asymmetrical: If half its clients are winning big by buying during a short squeeze, while its short clients are suffering losses they can’t pay, the broker can’t offset these gains and losses, but must pay the winning clients while possibly eating the losing trades. It is rare, but brokers go bankrupt during market events like this.
Brokers therefore are subject to strict financial requirements, including that they maintain large security deposits at the clearinghouses. When risk rises, clearinghouses raise their requirements, even intraday. On Jan. 28, when GameStop dropped from $483 to $112, the clearinghouse DTCC raised requirements by an aggregate $7.5 billion. Brokers had to post that money to DTCC whether or not their clients had it.
First, the digital distribution platform Discord banned the WallStreetBets account after the close Wednesday for “hate speech, glorifying violence, and spreading misinformation.” (For a moment, it looked like Reddit had also banned the group, but they resisted pressure to do so.) If the quoted justification sounds familiar, it’s nearly identical to the one given by Google, Apple, and Amazon for deplatforming Parler just three weeks earlier. Echoing Amazon, Discord said it had sent the group repeated warnings about objectionable content before deciding, on that day of all days, to shut them down.
Meanwhile, WallStreetBets investors were locked out of their trading accounts by online brokers such as Robinhood on Thursday morning. Based on new collateral requirements that it says were imposed by an industry consortium, Robinhood forbade its users from buying GameStop and other stocks that WallStreetBets had identified as short squeeze opportunities. Users were allowed only to “close their positions”—in other words, to sell to the shorts desperate to buy. When angry users registered their disapproval by leaving over 100,000 one-star reviews of the Robinhood app in the Google Play Store, Google deleted them.
First, the spectacle of the Senate wasting its time, in the middle of a pandemic, on some trading junkies maybe having not made as much money as they felt entitled to, is pathetic. It shows how warped the priorities of our putative elites are. This is secondary market trading in one bloody stock. Secondary market trading is societally unproductive (more on that shortly) and should be discouraged by increasing transaction costs (this is one of the big reasons to push for a financial transactions tax, not for revenue purposes, although that’s a nice side bennie, but to shrink the financial casinos).
The company is unimportant. The parties on both sides are competitors in a beauty contest between Cinderella’s ugly sisters: clueless new gen day traders versus clumsy shorts, many of whom look inept at the basic survival requirement of managing trading risk. And as we’ll address in due course, the real bad guy, the SEC for promoting such a socially unproductive market, has yet to receive the criticism it deserves. It’s simply bizarre that cheap market liquidity is being treated as some sort of right.
The focus has been the traders on Robinhood, a free trading platform, although some of the bigger low-cost services also had some trading halts in GameStop. These punters are surprised that a free service might not give them the best, or any execution in a bad market? Did they not work out that they were the product and having their order flow to Citadel might not be a great position to put themselves in?1Or as Financial Times reader AM put it:
Gamestop’s stock has been on a wild roller coaster ride, rising by roughly 640% from the start of last week to its peak. After Robinhood and other brokers initializing trading restrictions due to the heightened market activity, the stock has since fallen more than 80% to $90 per share.
But the stock’s volatile price action doesn’t come close to telling the story of how this market frenzy began on the Reddit community r/wallstreetbets, the hedge funds that suffered when GameStop share price rose dramatically, and why Robinhood halted trading last week.