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“Oh people, look around you. The signs are everywhere.”
It’s the silly season on Wall Street. It’s been the case for a while now, and may continue to be for some time.
The economy and markets are awash in money; from stimulus checks, Federal Reserve policy moves and rising wages, all of which are boosting stock prices to record highs.
Interest rates are at record lows which is creating, among other things, massive demand for high-yielding junk bonds, sending their yields below the rate of inflation rate for the first time ever. (Low rates are also contributing to the run-up in stocks, as stocks are now the only investment providing any kind of return.)
Meanwhile bankers and CEOs are flooding financial markets with initial public offerings, (Krispy Kreme (DNUT), an ill-fated IPO from 20 years ago — which I got wrong — has gone public again) as well as their shadowy cousins, SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies.)
Betting against all this froth has proven to be a fool’s errand so far, giving proof yet again to the Wall Street adage: “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” (An old favorite of mine, whose origin is probably Gary Shilling, not Keynes fyi.)
Underlying all this are several factors; for one, an uneven yet mostly strong recovery from COVID-19 (at least in the U.S.), as well as the aforementioned (and some say increasingly unnecessary and potentially counterproductive) assistance from the government. Net net though, this is just another cycle, same as coming out of the fourth wave of the Spanish Flu in 1920.
And yet there are at least two factors that are potentially different this time around; cryptocurrency and the meme stock phenomenon. I won’t dwell on crypto — and all of its potential and foibles — here, but will focus instead on meme stocks and more broadly, the so-called retail investor revolution.
Before I delve into that though, let me acknowledge that in suggesting something that is unique or new when it comes to the financial markets, triggers another Wall Street aphorism. To wit: “Beware when someone says ‘this time it’s different.’” Meaning, a new business model or trading scheme isn’t really new at its core and the old rules still apply, especially the one that says bubbles always burst.
The problem though is that sometimes things really are different. Crypto — rat poison though it may be —certainly is, (we’ll find out how sustainably so in our dotage.) As for the retail investor revolution, I’m less certain, but if you consider that the driving force behind it is really technology, then that would seem to be different, and to a degree permanent, which is the crux of what I’d like to explore.
First, let’s define terms. When I’m talking about meme stocks,* I’m of course speaking of GameStop (GME), AMC (AMC), Blackberry (BB) and a few dozen other usually heretofore off-beat stocks that get talked up online, most prominently at Reddit’s wallstreetbets forum by an army of 10.6 million "degenerates." These investors share tips, ideas and conspiracy theories and buy and sell stocks and options, sometimes trading these securities "to the moon" (to use the lexicon). Unless you’ve been in hiding for the past year, you probably know how crazy this all is, with GameStop, $GME, the meme stock poster child, going from $3 to $300 and now back to $190, over the past year.
Who are these people and what are they thinking?
“A lot of these people who go in there openly say I’m not F-ing selling even if it goes to zero,” says Jaime Rogozinski, Reddit’s WallStreetBets founder. “It’s somebody who knowingly wants to view the market in a different way, and doesn’t care about losing money. Is this how to build slow wealth for the rest of your life? No. It’s how to buy lottery tickets and hopefully win the lottery. And if you lose, you will buy a ticket next week.”
At first, say six months back, professional investors ridiculed this thinking. Some like Melvin Capital, Light Street Capital and others reportedly bet heavily against meme companies by shorting their stocks — and ended up suffering billions in losses, which in some cases was existential. All to the delight of the WSB crowd. “In general, the stupid money used to be retail but not anymore,” says veteran Wall Street institutional trader Tiger Williams, founder of Williams Trading, who says his firm now tracks and sometimes trades meme stocks and their options.
Other trends have facilitated the retail revolution more broadly as well, such as fractional shares. This goes back to Warren Buffett who opted decades ago never to split the stock of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B) because he figured that not doing so would attract only like-minded investors who wanted to buy and hold Berkshire for long periods of time. A share of Berkshire A now fetches $420,249. It’s true that in 1996 Buffett created lower priced B shares so that investors with less money could buy into Berkshire. Still, Buffett’s idea of not splitting took root. After a few stock splits early on, Amazon has also eschewed the practice (a share of $AMZN goes for $3,728.) Google’s split once, (current price: $2,509). Ditto for the likes of NVR, Booking Holdings and Cable One.
I guess you could argue this reduced speculation in these stocks, but it also had the effect of shutting out the little guy. In response, brokers like Schwab, Fidelity and upstart Robinhood (we’ll get to them in a second) started to offer fractional trades where investors could buy a slice of one of these high-priced stocks (or thousands of other, lower priced stocks too) for as little as a dollar. That’s allowed smaller investors to pour into these stocks, no doubt amping up trading and speculation which is exactly what Buffett was trying to prevent. You wonder had these companies just split their stocks when they hit $100 or so as many companies do, if fractional shares and the type of trading that it facilitates would have ever happened. Who knows.
A bigger facilitator of the retail investor revolution though, has been the emergence of new fintech brokerages like Robinhood which offers commission-free trading made possible in part through a strategy it has embraced called payment for order flow or PFOF. Payment for order flow is a practice where market makers pay Robinhood for the right to execute trades (they still have to be at the best price), allowing those companies to have more insight into the portfolio moves of retail customers. Those trends are valuable information for trading, in some instances this might mean that the market maker jumps in front of customers’ trades, which is called front running.
Robinhood, as you may know, was taken to task by investors and Congress when it restricted trading in GameStop and other stocks this past January during a market flurry in order to meet collateral requirements. The company was hit with a class action lawsuit, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority announced that it fined Robinhood $57 million and ordered the company to pay $12.6 million in restitution, plus interest, to thousands of customers for a total settlement of $70 million.
“To me, that would’ve been a complete game stopper. That’s it, no one will ever forgive Robinhood for this,” says Rogozinski of WallStreetBets. "[But] they did forgive them. It was a temporary outage, like what happens with my Netflix. Robinhood’s customer base has been growing in numbers since then. People now know that’s the downside of free brokers and they don’t care.”
Rogozinski is right, none of this has stymied Robinhood’s growth, (indeed millions of young investors and traders, 17.7 million monthly active customers to be precise now trade on Robinhood.) Nor has it prevented Robinhood from moving forward with its plan to go public soon. In the brokerage’s recently filed registration statement, we learn that 75% of the company's revenue came from PFOF via market makers, especially from Chicago-based Citadel Securities, which was founded by real-estate lovin’, billionaire Ken Griffin.
So where to come out on payment for order flow anyway? Good, bad or ugly?
“Payment for order flow — I’m not really concerned about it,” says Rogozinski. “I used to be, when Robinhood first came out, I disliked it very much, in large part because the execution was terrible. [But] when you have people turn $50,000 into $50 million — I don’t think they’re affected or dissuaded in any way whether they got front run by a few cents.
Others are less sanguine. “Because of the lack of disclosure, I’m a skeptic,” Tiger Williams says. “To be clear, Williams trading does not use any payments for order flow. We don't think it's in the best interest of our clients.”
A different perspective comes from Sarah Levy, CEO of Betterment, another fintech firm, who I spoke to a few weeks ago about PFOF. “We do not practice payment for order flow, but we've not ruled it out. What's important about payment for order flow is two things. One is best execution, and the second is transparency. I think the opportunity to give customers better financial outcomes through best execution really depends on the provider. So I don't take a strong opinion either way, except that the customer has to come first. That's what's most important.”
'A dopamine delivery device'
Another knock on Robinhood is that it utilizes what is called gamification, meaning its app is, well, game-like, replete with scratch cards, confetti and congratulatory messages. We asked Dr. Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at The New School who testified before a Senate subcommittee in March on the risks of retail investing, if the SEC was right to be wary of gamification and payment for order flow: “Those concerns of the SEC are exactly correct,” says Ghilarducci. “Gamification has created a predatory effect on the innocent. I know that firsthand and anecdotally by the responses of some of my students who have abandoned all analytical sense."
“The gamification of Robinhood in particular has distorted their ability to look critically at their behavior and the product. That’s because they’re appealing to the part of my student’s brains that play video games and not to the part of my student's brains that are critical and discerning thinkers. They have hijacked my student's hobby to make them think they're doing something analytical and wise.”
And it’s true that trading on these slick apps like Robinhood, MooMoo and Public.com are fun and cool, if not self-consciously democratic, never mind growing. (In January alone, 6 million Americans downloaded a trading app.) Check out Public.com which says: “We're on the mission to make the public markets work for all people.” At the same time the app counts a wide array of bold-face names as its investors and advisors, including Will Smith, Scott Galloway, Tony Hawk and J.J. Watt.
“It’s the equivalent of a dopamine delivery device,” says Williams about these apps. “When trading becomes connected to a brain function, well, sure you trade all day long from your iPhone or from your computer in your basement and now back at work too.”
To those who for years have called for banks and brokers to make their products more accessible to the average human, perhaps they should have been careful of what they wished for, because it has been delivered.
Just how powerful are these new real investors now? It’s tricky to say because there are various ways of measuring. Williams points to this real-time measuring tool of trading volume here, which shows that the TRF (Trade Reporting Facility) category, mostly retail trading, accounts for around 45% of all activity, that’s up from 37.3% in January 2019, according to Deloitte.
How much staying power do these new investors have? Again, and sorry to say, unclear. One of the dudes from “The Big Short,” Michael Burry is decidedly bearish, telling Barron’s: “I don’t know when meme stocks such as this will crash, but we probably do not have to wait too long, as I believe the retail crowd is fully invested in this theme, and Wall Street has jumped on the coattails. We’re running out of new money available to jump on the bandwagon.”
But Matt Tuttle, CEO of Tuttle Capital Management, sees something more permanent and I’m inclined to agree with him to an extent.
“I think on the trading side, retail investors are a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think it’s going away,” says Tuttle, (whose firm has a new ETF named FOMO that invests in meme stocks.) “Wall Street likes to put out parallels to the late 90s and the internet bubble. There are some similarities, but a lot of really important differences. Back then brokers had all the power. They had access to information. You had to trade through them. Retail investors weren’t connected to each other."
“Now retail guys have access to as good if not better information as the institutional investors have. They have the ability to trade at lightning speed at no commission. Most importantly these guys are connected. When going into a stock they have the same type of power a large institutional investor has. I saw the other day they got AMC to scrap a secondary offering. That’s power. What history tells us is people who have power do not give it up voluntarily, you have to force them out. And the SEC may. Short of that, these guys aren't going anywhere.”
To me Tuttle’s connected point is the key though. He’s really talking about a network. Meaning the retail revolution is really driven by a technology enabled network, which is empowering the little guy, the retail investor, to a degree at the expense of the big guy, i.e., the institutional investor.
And that is new.
It’s a shift that mirrors the consumerization of technology. Meaning that the first wave of technology was the IBM mainframe managed by a handful of specialists who held sway over vast swaths of information technology. Fast forward to today where with the advent of the iPhone and software like search and apps, (which I wrote about last month in this piece about inflation) and the power dynamic has shifted from an opaque, closed system controlled by an elite to more of a transparent market where the crowd rules.
Now that is a gross oversimplification, but directionally I stand by it. Also, I’m not judging whether this is good or bad, and to be sure, there will be pain and woe (and triumph) as this plays out, but my point is the retail revolution, such as it is, has staying power.
And so look for the silliness, in some form, to continue until further notice.
*The term ‘meme stock’ comes from the traditional meaning of a digital meme or ”a concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet.”
Correction: A prior version of this story stated that Citadel Securities is run by Ken Griffin. The firm was founded by Griffin but he no longer serves as CEO.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on July 10, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer