While we are just over a month into 2021, the year has already brought big changes to the global conversation: in the United States, angry rioters tried to prevent a new presidential administration from taking power; COVID vaccines are being distributed around the globe; and, last week, a group of Reddit traders totally upended the financial world.
If you have not been paying attention, here is what you missed: a group of rogue traders in the r/WallStreetBets (WSB) Reddit forum set out to send GameStop Inc (NYSE:GME) stock prices to the moon, and, they did, to the tune of more than 1100%.
Why? Partially for profit, and partially for revenge: the move is now being called ‘The Big Short Squeeze’ as Wall Street hedge funds are being forced to take losses or white-knuckle their holdings into oblivion.
And, the game is far from over: WSB is out for blood. At least one hedge fund has already sustained significant damage as a result: Melvin Capital reported losses amounting to 53% in January. The drop was so huge that two other large firms, Citadel and Point72, had to inject capital into Melvin just to keep it going.
As such, WSB’s GameStop pump has sparked a global conversation, or rather, a movement, centering around the role of retail traders in capital markets. Traders, CEOs, politicians and artists alike are talking about how capital markets must be redesigned to accommodate retail traders. (And, in fact, that this should have happened long ago.)
Beyond that, spin-off groups of retail investors have used Reddit to organize their powers around a number of other assets, including DogeCoin (DOGE) and XRP. Using their collective buying power, traders have pushed some of these assets more than 800%.
As the movement continues, the whole world has its eye on what WallStreetBets is up to next. Finance Magnates had the opportunity to sit down with Jaime Rogozinski, Founder of the r/WallStreetBets subreddit, to discuss the WSB movement, the GameStop saga, and what is next for WallStreetBets.
Did Jaime See WSB as a Catalyst for a Global Movement? ”Not in a Million Years”
We asked Jaime whether he thought that the r/WallStreetBets forum would “No. Not in a million years,” he said.
“I had a hope deep-down that at some point, the types of things that were going on in WallStreetBets would generate some type of conversation. We have been in the news in the past for some relatively high-profile things that had happened, but it was still very much isolated to the world of finance. What’s happened this past week is absolutely not something that I would have ever anticipated.”
How did the group get to this point? “The mechanics of it was simple,” Jaime said. “I started the group in 2012, and it started growing and getting more attention; it was doubling every year in size pretty consistently throughout the past few years.”
Jaime was an active moderator in the forum from the point that he created the group in 2012 until April of 2020, “so, I’ve gotten to see it go through every possible growth stage,” he said.
Now, he is not actively involved in the subreddit: “I’m watching from afar,” Jaime said. “I’m not involved in the subreddit, at least; I have all the social media accounts (Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera). So, I’m involved [in that way],” he said.
Increased Access to Capital Markets Has Slowly Been Changing the Financial Landscape
But, what catapulted r/WallStreetBets from a meme-heavy group of retail traders into the center of a global movement?
Jaime explained that “what’s caused a lot of this growth” can be traced to “a couple of things,” including “access to financial markets.”
“When I got started, we were in the early stages of these discount brokers,” he said. “They still charged commission for making stock trades and stock option trades, but they were much cheaper relative to what they were previously.”
Indeed, “there was a lot more variety; they were internet-based, and it was relatively simple to get started, not nearly as simple as it is today; you still had to fill out paperwork and sign it and wait several days to fund the account and things of that nature. But, as time progressed, we started to see more and more brokers come into the scene, more and more financial tools,” including ETFs, stock options, and fractional share purchases.
In other words, “pretty much anybody could start participating in the market.”
”You See Some Very Outlandish Things Take Place, You See Some Very Insightful Things Take Place” on The r/WallStreetBets Forum
The other major shift that has occurred in the financial world in the past eight years is a “cultural shift.”
“Since 2008, there’s been some distrust [in financial markets],” Jaime said. He also authored a book on this topic, entitled WallStreetBets: How Boomers Made the World’s Biggest Casino for Millennials Profiles.
“The Millennial Generation and Generation Z both know about the stock market, but they grew up with a mindset where they can’t quite trust it, but they can use it to make some money,” Jaime said.
As a result, the Millennial and GenZ traders in the r/WallStreetBets forum have adopted a highly non-serious way of engaging with each other, and with investing itself: “the forum itself is very relaxed, very ‘autist’, very funny, and very crude. It’s very entertaining, to be honest with you. I think that’s why it attracts a lot of people. It’s straight-up fun. You see some very outlandish things take place, you see some very insightful things take place.”
Before Founding r/WallStreetBets, Jaime “Noticed That There Were Cracks in the System.”
The combination of distrust in financial markets, a non-serious (almost playful) attitude toward investing, and increased access to financial products across capital markets is what Jaime believes propelled r/WallStreetBets to the center of the global stage.
And indeed, a number of platforms have been building the infrastructure to make capital markets more accessible to retail investors. However, now that retail investors are using some of the power that has been granted to them, the very same platforms seem to be showing a bit of pushback.
“Back in 2012…when I was starting to get myself really involved, getting my hands dirty and reading about these different things, I learned about ETFs (exchange-traded funds),” Jaime said, “more specifically, these ‘exotic-synthetic ETFs’, which are fancy words that masquerade for all sorts of things. But, basically, these are things that you can trade like stocks, and they represent other things,” like gold.
“But, then you start seeing these inverse leveraged products, leveraged meaning you get two or three times the return, inverse meaning you get the opposite, and it occurs to me: ‘wow, I think this is really dangerous. I think there’s a reason that you shouldn’t be allowed to short-sell [in the first place], and these guys are giving you the option to short-sell three times as much’.”
“I noticed that there were cracks in the system,” Jaime said.
“Now, fast forward [several years] until all of these brokers were coming in,” including companies like Robinhood. “There’s very fast growth, growth that’s so fast that I believe that they weren’t able to keep up with the changes over time; you started seeing some fragility, some weaknesses in how these different components interact with each other.”
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In other words, “Wall Street wasn’t prepared to have huge numbers of retail traders that are trading very differently from institutional investors. By differently, I mean that they’re taking risks: they’re doing things that aren’t necessarily rational to a typical economist or a fundamental investor, but they’re doing it knowing the risks they’re taking.”
“What You Start Seeing Is Examples of Systems Breaking.”
As more and more retail investors moved into the Wall Street arena, “what you start seeing is examples of systems breaking,” Jaime said.
“Before this GameStop (NYSE:GME) episode, we had a rather famous situation last year where some user figured out that he could get a lot of leverage (in fact, he could get infinite leverage if he really wanted to), then deposit a few thousand dollars, and then he could balloon that amount into astronomically huge buying power.”
“Obviously, they’ve fixed that loop,” Jaime said. “But, there’s been other things like that.”
Jaime explained that the events of this and last week have been the latest example in the disparity between the huge numbers of retail traders entering capital markets and the infrastructure of the capital markets themselves. “This industry grew so fast, and the infrastructure’s not set up to be able to handle these things.”
As a result, a lot of brokers, including Robinhood, found themselves in the same boat: “they had to cancel trades” of certain shares.
“The volume was too high, the prices had changed way too much; there’s all of these backend wheeling-and-dealing settlements and clearing houses and capital requirements and collateral. There’s a whole system in place that I think was well-intentioned, but clearly was never designed to make room for the little guys.”
Therefore, “while you hear a lot of these explanations being given out” as the reason for the limitations that brokers placed on certain trading activities last week, explanations like “it’s not our fault, it’s the way that the rules are set up.”
“Sure, point fingers if you’d like,” Jaime said, “but the people who ended up getting hurt in the end were the retail investors. Clearly, they’re at an unfair disadvantage. The system hasn’t been designed so that individuals in the market can participate in the way that they choose to.”
“There’s Definitely Going to Be Some Change.”
However, after the events of last week, it seems that capital markets infrastructure is on the road to change, in terms of both internal rules and external regulation.
While it is not clear exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, Jaime said that he is “watching the situation very closely, because it’s a very complicated topic.”
Indeed, “regulatory bodies and the tools that they have were not designed to be able to handle the age of social media,” Jaime said. “That’s never been more evident than now. I just read a report saying that this investigation could take years before they really figure out what’s taken place.”
However, “there’s definitely going to be some change,” Jaime said.
“I’ve been through enough changes in the US, large-scale social changes that begin with conversations like this, where you have some type of catalyst, and then people start weighing in. In this case, we’ve seen artists and politicians and businessmen and CEOs all weighing in.”
”Regulators Have to Kind of Figure Out Exactly What the Deal Is.”
But, what will these changes look like? “I think it’s going to be two-fold,” Jaime said. “I think the SEC wants to be sure that markets remain stable, and they want to make sure that no one is being defrauded.”
“This is an interesting situation because a lot of the rules regarding manipulation and pumping-and-dumping and all sorts of different things revolve around the fact that you’re being fraudulent. That you’re trying to lie and take someone’s money away.”
“That isn’t the case here,” Jaime said. “Here, these people are fine with the risk. They’re ok with losing money. Well, not everybody, obviously; but a lot of people that are behind these trades are buying stock options, which by definition, are most likely going to result in a hundred-percent loss.”
“So, regulators have to kind of figure out exactly what the deal is,” Jaime said. “From that perspective, they’re not lying, but on the other hand, what we’ve seen with these stock prices is not normal; that’s not a stable stock market. So, they want to make sure that they find a way to stabilize this thing.”
Beyond that, Jaime said that there may be conversations about whether or not short-selling should continue to be allowed in the United States. “I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with that,” he said.
“The other conversation that’s being had,” however, is “‘hey, it’s time for the little guy because we’re finally participating, and we’re actually collectively being a player that is competing with these large firms. It’s not fair that they shut off the valve and stopped allowing us to trade.’”
“Blame whoever you want, they’re still the victims in this particular case. [Retail traders] are still the victims in this particular case because they’re the ones who ended up losing money. They were unable to participate in trading.”
All of these conversations will likely result in action: “a little bit of, ‘hey, let’s look at the strength of the system to make sure it keeps working’, ‘let’s try to stabilize this’; you have a little bit of ‘let’s make some rules for the little guys.’”
With regards to this latter point, Jaime said that “there’s a lot of similar tones that I’m hearing that call back to the Occupy Wall Street movement.”
Occupy Wall Street “Never Ended up with Much Closure.”
Indeed, “that entire episode never ended up with much closure,” Jaime said. “There are a lot of feelings that have gotten pent up again, and even if you factor in that the economy’s not in the same situation, even if you factor in coronavirus; we’re not in a financial crisis, but people still remember it, and people are still upset and excited about seeing some change.”
After all, “the feelings around Occupy Wall Street were real.”
“Lives were very much affected, and the psyche of [the younger generations] were affected as well: you had kids that were graduating from college around this time with huge amounts of debt and no job, having to move into their parents’ basements, and sometimes, the parents would lose that house, too.”
“That was an important chapter in this generation’s lives, and all of the generations that lived through that crisis.”
While the 2008 financial crisis is long in the rear-view mirror, and some systemic changes have happened as a result, the conversation clearly is not over.
“I think a lot of people feel some sort of joy about the fact that the large institutions are losing money,” Jaime said. “[…] There’s an element of a feel-good story there, a sort of ‘David vs. Goliath’ narrative. That’s what’s making this an interesting story to follow.”