Opinion | Wall Street can spare the drama over Gamestop

By Jack Troy, For The Pitt News

“Let the people trade.” This noble message from Robinhood, a commission-free, gamified stock trading platform for the everyman, appeared on their Twitter account in March 2016. This message clearly struck a chord. As of 2020, Robinhood had 13 million users, many of which would likely have never taken an interest in the stock market without the app.

This carefully constructed but simple message came crashing down last Thursday after Robinhood, along with a slew of stuffier stock trading platforms, placed restrictions on purchasing shares of Gamestop, AMC Theatres and other heavily shorted stocks. Shorts are essentially a bet that a certain stock will decline in value, as highlighted in movies such as “The Big Short.”

Hedge funds haven’t been affected by these restrictions and even benefitted from the pause, getting valuable time to buy back shares at depressed prices. Regardless of intentions, the limits on trading unequivocally benefited the wealthy investors shorting these stocks, who have taken to newspapers, television and social media to air their grievances over mounting losses. Hedge funds, which remain largely unregulated, make a lot of money from risky practices such as shorts. It’s hypocritical for their managers to claim that ordinary investors are acting irresponsibly now that they’re facing the consequences of these risks.

These ordinary investors and in particular members of the popular subreddit r/wallstreetsbets, known for collective, high-risk trading ventures, caught onto Gamestop’s undervaluation. They also caught onto more Gamestop shares being shorted by hedge funds than existed. This was a perfect opportunity to drive up the price and force short sellers to buy back their shares at huge losses, creating a feedback loop that sent the price skyrocketing. This is known as a short squeeze and is not uncommon.

This tactic has been incredibly successful thus far, forcing nearly $20 billion in losses for short sellers while making small fortunes for retail investors. The big middle finger to Wall Street however, is invaluable.

Wealthy investors, hedge funds and private equity firms have been given free reign for years, treating the stock market like a $50 trillion casino. When their risky practices compounded the 2008 financial crisis, the whole economy felt the effects. Many financially responsible Americans lost their homes, their jobs and their dignity. Unemployment hit 10% at the peak of the recession, drying up job prospects for laid-off workers and recent college graduates alike. Lenders foreclosed on nearly 4 million homes and $3.4 trillion in retirement savings evaporated, wiping out lifetimes of hard work. With the exception of a few early casualties, big banks and investment firms found a soft financial cushion to land on.

Many participants in the current Gamestop squeeze were these Americans — coming of age in a broken economy or watching their parents lose everything. One particularly gutting post on r/wallstreetbets describes how their father’s concrete company went under almost instantly, while financial executives lived comfortably.

“My father never recovered from that blow,” they wrote. “I’ll burn it all down just to spite them.”

So yes, billionaire Leon Cooperman’s CNBC rant got it right. Ordinary people, who were thrown paltry stimulus checks as a reward for weathering a mismanaged pandemic, are investing “as a way of attacking wealthy people.” Wealthy people who have been using tactics just like the short squeeze to make billions in the stock market, not as a result of financial acumen and hard work, but of exploitation and massive amounts of capital. So when a finance talking head warns of irresponsibility or vindictiveness on the part of Gamestop investors, feel free to ignore them. If Wall Street can play slots on a market untethered to real economic conditions, they can spare the drama when the rest of us decide to join in.

Jack Troy writes primarily about politics and environmental issues. Write to him at [email protected].