The first thing to know about the Great GameStop Caper is that it’s all but over, for now, and Wall Street survived. But the second thing to know is that it’s not the first time the markets have been thrown for a loop by concentrated efforts to boost or attack specific stock futures, nor will it likely be the last.
And that’s an issue that probably needs addressing.
The furor that erupted last week had been brewing for some time, and involves more than just shares of GameStop. Other targets of the Reddit-spurred investing spree include AMC, BlackBerry and, this week, the precious metal silver. But it was GameStop that became the symbol of the “populist coup,” as some have described it.
Depending on whose account you consider, the movement began either because some small investors saw an opportunity in an undervalued company, or because “the little guys” decided they’d had enough of big fish like hedge funds dictating the market. Either way, the driving force seems clearly to be the r/WallStreetBets Reddit forum (or subreddit), through which users both shared advice and — importantly — egged each other on to purchase shares of a few companies.
The effect, in the case of GameStop, was to take a foundering stock that was expected to lose even more value and boost it through the stratosphere. As a result, GameStop had gained more than 1,000 percent since the start of the year, from about $17 to $325 per share on Friday.
Why did it matter so much? Because hedge funds — some of Wall Street’s major players — make much of their money betting on whether companies like GameStop will succeed or fail. And several had placed big money on the latter. That meant the Reddit-inspired push cost those funds millions.
That shook confidence in the markets at large.
Such “hedging” is a subset of the futures market — essentially betting on whether specific stocks or commodities will, over time, rise or fall in value. And the futures market is, in turn, a microcosm of what Wall Street and the world’s other stock markets are about in general. What began as a way for businesses to raise needed capital from — generally wealthy — investors in exchange for a piece of the venture has evolved into, basically, the world’s biggest casino.
Along the way, new “games” have sprung up for those bored with the usual fare. And new tools as well, including online brokerages and apps that make it possible for anyone with money to wager to access the same venues as the wealthy. Sites such as E*TRADE and Robinhood allow anyone to sit at the same table as Warren Buffett.
The difference, of course, is that Buffett et al. can afford to lose more without batting an eye than the little players can ever hope to wager. Also, the big fish have the ability to actually affect the game, by plowing money into stocks strategically. This week, those regular players regained some of their footing, with GameStop shares down to $105 Tuesday afternoon.
What’s different now is that the “little guys” have had an awakening to the fact that they can “game” the system the same way big investors can, and that they can make serious money doing so. All it takes is coordination.
What the Reddit users did isn’t any different from what major players do all the time. If Buffett or Elon Musk say they like a stock, the effect is going to be similar to the concerted effort of the thousands of online buyers we’ve seen in the past month with GameStop, etc. But those major players have always known they have that power.
For the Redditors, this was an awakening. And now that they’re awake, that insight could be put to use at any time, in any way. It could also be directed by someone intent on adversely affecting the markets, or a specific company. And that’s dangerous.
The GameStop “coup” exposed a genuine vulnerability in the marketplace, one that regulators must address — but without removing access to what has become society’s great economic engine. Perhaps it’s worth contemplating whether it’s wise to allow betting on companies to fail in the first place.
“What you need to know about this unfolding morality play is that it is the inevitable outcome of decades of lax regulation, cheap money and misguided notions about the efficiency of financial markets. The result is an oversize and overcompensated financial market that has long since abandoned its role to channel savings to the highest and best use, becoming nothing more than a high-tech casino.” So says The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, who is also Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.
We’ve seen enough Hollywood casino capers to know if you’ve got that much money involved, you better have airtight security in place.