Activist short-sellers are different in the types of actions they advocate. These are people who are shorting the stock, and are arguing the current market value for the shares is too high. They may claim something is stinky about the financial reporting of results, and that regulators should audit the books. They may point out that management is engaged in some value-destroying activity that shareholders were unaware of. The activist shorts aren’t trying to destroy value — they claim that the true economic value was already much lower than the stock price would indicate, and that’s because the information the market has about the company is just plain wrong.
They’re being activists not because of altruism, obviously, but that the faster the market prices adjust to what they think the true value is, the less they’re exposed to the risk of getting squeezed out of their short position before they can profit.
The consternation over the stock price surges at GameStop and AMC is rooted in their disconnect with their financial performance – both companies are losing money, made worse by the pandemic lockdowns.
The other shoe is yet to drop for those who bid up the share price of GameStop, according to Indarte. “I think we’re going to see more pain felt potentially by the retail investors that are in effect bidding up the price of GameStop,” she predicted. “It’s hard to justify the prices that we’ve been seeing for the company, based on the company’s fundamentals.” In the latest quarter, GameStop reported a 30% fall in revenues to $1 billion and a loss of $18.8 million. Similarly, AMC has also shuttered most of its theaters, and recently secured $917 million in financing to stave off bankruptcy.
In addition to the soundness of its fundamentals, a company’s stock price can also be driven by investor sentiment, “but there is large heterogeneity between different companies for the importance of both,” according to Binsbergen. Much of the price discovery depends on the liquidity and the total market capitalization of the stock, he noted. Small and illiquid stocks are more susceptible to non-fundamental price movements than larger stocks, he explained.
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.
There’s just one problem: the billions of dollars in new “wealth” people have supposedly gained is mostly in the form of inflated GameStop stock. Before they can actually use that wealth, they need to convert it to cash. And if a lot of people start selling their shares, the stock will crash. Most of that GameStop “wealth” will evaporate, with many shareholders getting a fraction of the value they expected.
Meanwhile, if GameStop’s stock price starts to fall, short sellers will start to make money. Any short sellers who maintained their short positions through the bubble will make back most of what they lost.
Sooner or later, GameStop’s stock is going to return to normal levels. And when it does, we are likely to find that little wealth was actually transferred from wealthy hedge fund investors to the general public. Short losses as the stock appreciated will be largely balanced out by short gains as the stock falls. The gains of GameStop shareholders as the stock appreciates will be balanced by losses as the stock declines.
That chart ends at yesterday’s close. Things have been even more crazy overnight, with the price hitting $500/share. There have been gyrations caused by the shutdown of the chatrooms and some retail platforms stopping trading in this and other heavily shorted stocks. But the fundamental dynamic in play now–shorts slitting their own throats in panicked buying to cover–means that attempts to constrain the long herd will not have a lasting impact.
The short interest that had to (and has to) be covered is huge–short interest in GME was 140 percent of outstanding shares–and a larger share of the float. (How can there be more shorts than shares? The same share can be borrowed and lent multiple times!) The effects of the short covering are seen not only in the price, but in the stratospheric cost of borrowing shares. Earlier this week it was about 30 percent–juice loan territory. Now it is at 100 percent.
In many respects, this is reminiscent of some of the more storied episodes in Wall Street history, or more recently the 2008 VW corner which punished shorts severely. But there is a major difference. In some of the earlier episodes (including major corners of shorts in railroad stocks in the 19th century, or battles between shorts and stock pools in the 1920s, or the VW case), there was a single dominant long squeezing the overextended shorts. Here, it seems that the driving force is a relatively large group of small longs, acting with a common purpose.
It was a routine regulatory filing, the kind hedge funds must make every three months, where Melvin Capital first showed its hand.
The “Form 13F” filing that landed on August 14 last year listed 91 positions it held at the end of the second quarter, including shareholdings in household names from Microsoft and Amazon to Crocs and Domino’s Pizza. Halfway down the list: an apparently innocuous bet against GameStop, a struggling video game retailer.
That the New York hedge fund should think GameStop’s shares were going lower was hardly remarkable — many others were betting the same way. Wall Street analysts had sell ratings on the stock and the retailer’s prospects looked grim as gamers switched to downloads. But by using the options market for the bet, which forced it to disclose the position, Melvin had put a target on itself.
Writing for The Post this week, Charles Gasparino explained why the little guys got together to buy GameStop: “Mostly, they’re out to hurt the big guys.”
The Big Guys’ problem is that nobody likes them much. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, they’re deeply unpopular with ordinary Americans, on both the left and the right, resentment they’ve stoked with selfishness, arrogance and condescension. Their solution to this unpopularity has been to use their control over online platforms, and their influence over the government, to silence their critics.
But they can’t stop the signal. No sooner did the tech giants collude to shut down Twitter alternative Parler than a new revolt sprang up somewhere else entirely among stock traders on Reddit. What will it be next? Truck drivers refusing to deliver food to Silicon Valley? Plumbers boycotting “woke” executives? It’ll probably be something cleverer and less foreseeable than that, but it’ll be something. The more the techno-elite tightens its grip, the more Americans will slip through its fingers.
The only thing “dangerous” about a gang of Reddit investors blowing up hedge funds is that some of us reading about it might die of laughter. That bit about investigating this as a “pump and dump scheme” to push prices away from their “fundamental value” is particularly hilarious. What does the Washington Post think the entire stock market is, in the bailout age?
America’s banks just had maybe their best year ever, raking in $125 billion in underwriting fees at a time when the rest of the country is dealing with record unemployment, thanks entirely to massive Federal Reserve intervention that turned a crash into a boom. Who thinks the “fundamental value” of most stocks would be this high, absent the Fed’s Atlas-like support in the last year?
This past week has been a banner one for Reddit’s island of misfit investors.
WallStreetBets exploded into the mainstream, moving from the front page of Reddit to the front page of the New York Times and nearly every other major news site. The subreddit’s short-squeeze of GameStop helped shoot up the price of the video game retailer’s stock a mind-boggling 1,700% from the beginning of January to Wednesday (before it fell again Thursday), captivating the minds and wallets of investors — both casual and institutional — and financial regulators.
But while millions are now discovering WallStreetBets for the first time, it has been building momentum throughout the pandemic. One can trace its epic rise to a perfect storm of favorable conditions: the exponential growth of the app Robinhood and its no-fee options trading, the extreme volatility Covid-19 brought to the markets, the stimulus checks mailed to millions of Americans, the lack of televised sports for much of the year, and the unwanted free time stuck at home the pandemic has forced on many people.