Written By: John P. Anderson
Commenters have likened the recent retail “meme” trading in stocks such as GameStop Corp. to buying a ticket on a roller coaster—“You don’t go on a roller coaster because you end up in a different place, you go on it for the ride and it’s exciting because you’re part of it.” See, Bailey Lipschultz and Divya Balji, Historic Week for Gamestop Ends with 400% Rally as Shorts Yield, Bloomberg (January 29, 2021).
The comparison is apt in a number of respects. These retail traders, led by some members of the “WallStreetBets” group on the Reddit social media platform, “got on” GameStop a couple weeks ago at just under $20 a share, and, despite its rapid rise to a high of just under $500 a share, I think most people expect (including the meme traders) that the price at which this turbulent ride will end is somewhere around where it began. After all, GameStop’s fundamentals have not changed. It remains a brick-and-mortar business that was devastated by the pandemic, and it is expected to steadily lose market share to online vendors.
For anyone interested in the mechanics of the “short squeeze” and how these traders managed to move price of GameStop so far out of whack with its presumed value, see some helpful articles here, here, and here. For some thoughts on the controversial limitations on trading by retail brokerage firms such as Robinhood, see my Co-bloggers Ben Edwards’ and Anne Lipton’s recent posts here and here. And see some other interesting takes from my Co-blogger Joan Macleod Heminway here. My purpose in this post is to highlight one aspect of the meme-trading phenomenon that has, I think, been underappreciated.
Given that we all have a pretty good idea of how this roller-coaster ride is going to end, why did many retail traders (along with others) continue to pile on? One answer is that these traders were just blinded by greed and FOMO. Indeed, concern that amateur traders are being led astray in this way by social media influencers and “game-like” trading interfaces has led some to call for paternalistic trading restrictions by brokerage firms and/or regulatory intervention. But it seems to me that something quite different may be going on here as well. There is evidence to suggest that at least some of the meme traders who have taken the markets by storm over the last couple weeks are not (and never were) buying these heavily-shorted stocks simply to make money, but rather to make a point.
The “points” being made by these traders are not necessarily coordinated or consistent. They range from the oft-expressed goal of “taking it to” Wall-Street hedge funds to “hurt the big guys” in the same vein as the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2008, to protesting the demise of bricks-and-mortar businesses by Big-Tech and mega online vendors, to the populist rejection of perceived top-down elitism (private and public) that elevated Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016. Indeed, former SEC Commissioner, Laura Unger, recently compared the recent social-media-driven short squeezes to the Capitol Hill riots on January 6. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that some meme traders are buying stocks on aesthetic grounds, to bring back retro companies like Blackberry and Blockbuster as “nostalgia plays.”
If retail traders are trading as a form of political, social, or aesthetic expression, then what are the implications? What does this mean for the Efficient Market Hypothesis? What (if anything) should (or can) regulators and/or legislators do about it? These are some questions my co-authors Jeremy Kidd, George Mocsary, and I plan to explore in a forthcoming article. I plan to post some more thoughts on the possibility of retail securities trading as a form of speech (and its social, market, and regulatory implications) in the coming weeks.