Written by Rhea Barnes
It’s a strange day when Ted Cruz, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump Jr all agree on something but on Twitter – Thursday the 28th of January 2021 that’s exactly what happened. The trio added their voices in a rising chorus of condemnation at popular stock trading app Robinhood’s decision to restrict trading of GameStop (GME), AMC Cinemas (AMC) and Blackberry (BB) stocks. This decision was the result of a remarkable week which has culminated in a David vs Goliath battle between small investors and the big financial institutions of Wall Street.
It all started earlier this week on the popular Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets where amateur small scale investors gather to swap tips and discuss investment strategies. A Redditor on the forum had been following which companies’ hedge funds had taken out short trades and noticed that the American company GameStop was now in the hedge fund’s crosshairs.
They had taken out huge amount of short trades against the struggling company with the full intention of driving the stock price into the ground. The likely outcome of this was GameStop being forced into bankruptcy, the very definition of disaster capitalism. The company had been struggling for years having committed to bricks and mortar stores in an era of increased digitalisation of the gaming industry and the pandemic only served to cause further pain. This placed them within the sights of the hedge funds making them an ideal candidate for ‘shorting’ and the buzzards were circling.
For those reading who do not spend what little free time you have trading stocks, congratulations, that is a healthy way to live your life, however it makes understanding recent developments difficult. A ‘short’ in the world of trading is when someone borrows stock from a broker and then immediately sells it at the current market price. They then gamble that the value of the stock falls so they can then buy it back at the reduced price and then return the shares to the broker while pocketing the difference. For years this casino trading was the exclusive domain of billion dollar hedge funds, titans of the financial sector but this week that all changed.
The Redditor who noticed the short trades on GameStop managed to convince many who frequented the forum to launch a daring crowd-sourced counter-attack to buy as much GameStop stock as they possibly could thereby pushing the price of the shares through the roof. In December 2020 GameStop shares were worth around $20 a share, by the 27th that same share was worth about $350. Overnight the financial chessboard was upturned and the hedge funds who had taken out the short trades against GameStop were in hot water as their short positions started to lose billions. Hedge funds such as Melvin Capital worth $13bn were forced to close their short positions by buying back the stock at hugely increased prices which then sent the value of the stock soaring even higher, this is what’s called a ‘short squeeze’. This inflicted massive losses upon Melvin Capital leaving them bankrupt, reliant upon a bail out of $3bn from their backers Point72 and Citadel. As of writing the stock is still riding high at $325 and the Redditors are currently combing through other stock to see which shorted stocks they can squeeze with the full intention of bankrupting more hedge funds.
In response, on Thursday the 28th, Robinhood the popular retail stock trading app halted trading on the Reddit targeted stocks citing consumer protection as it’s motivation. Other tradings apps soon followed suit and almost instantly class action law suits were filed in multiple States citing market manipulation. However, whether these actions will be successful in a court of law remains to be seen. As of writing, Robinhood has lifted it’s embargo but has instead imposed ridiculously low buying limits and there has also been reports of forced sales of GME stock through the app.
The fallout on social and mainstream media has been spectacular, with hedge fund managers and other Wall St heavyweights taking to Twitter and TV to bemoan the unfairness of it all and that they are the target of an ‘attack upon the rich’.
Others in support of this power of collective displayed by the Redditors commented below:
Steve Cohen who is linked with the hedge fund being targeted by the Redditors spent the last few days on Twitter complaining bitterly about the situation and as of Saturday has deleted his Twitter account citing ‘threats and harassment’. While I absolutely do not condone threats of violence towards individuals, watching Wall Street bankers throw a tantrum over GameStop is a sense of catharsis I never thought was possible to experience. These are the same bankers who have been getting away with a metaphorical shark attack for years, and who have played the financial markets like a casino, crashing economies in their wake. Not one of them ever paid the price for their recklessness, and now Joe Public is getting a slice of the action they can’t stand it. Over the last few days there have been calls from the financial sector for regulation of the markets, which is ironic because these calls are coming from the same people who have spent the last decade lobbying for less regulation.
It would be a critical misunderstanding to view everyone partaking in this as ‘activists’. The sub Reddit r/WallStreet-Bets currently boasts a membership of almost seven million members and is a melting pot of differing ideologies and motivations. The core is made up of private basement stock trading veterans who rub shoulders with the amateur investor looking to make a quick return, veteran gamers, teenagers, anarchists, socialists and the boomers who likely showed up in last few days after hearing about it on the news. While many on the thread express differing reasons for their participation, there is an overriding sense that people have been screwed over, left out of the system for too long and are now hungry for a slice of the pie. There are stories on the forum where people recount their experiences growing up during the financial crash of 2008 and the devastating effect it had on their families. Some see this as a way to financially even the score, however there is a definite ‘ride or die’ mentality pervading the forum with a significant proportion wanting to do as much damage as possible to the hedge funds with no regard as to whether they will be left holding the bag at the end of all this.
Despite the craziness much good has come from this with many inspiring tales of people being lifted out of difficult situations. One US Redditor, in a post described how he has paid for his sister’s Lyme disease treatment, “I can now write my mom a check and put my sister through lyme treatment. This has been a very rough year, but I’m so thankful for every single one of you”.
In addition to the personal stories of success a new thread was started on the board in the last few days where people are discussing what charities they will be giving their gains to. New screen-shots keep appearing on the thread one after the other of donation receipts with figures running into thousands of dollars/pounds.
While undoubtably much good has come from the Wall Street raid, I cannot help but see it as a fundamentally flawed movement, a product of and reaction to the flawed and corrupt global financial system of which Wall Street is a key pillar. Unless we tackle the root causes which produce such massive wealth inequality, nothing will change and the GameStop incident will be reduced to a one off stunt, a memeified parody of what was originally intended. This could be achieved through long overdue robust regulation and taxation of the financial markets, wealthy individuals and corporations, and it will be interesting to see if the Biden administration will rise to this challenge but I personally will not be holding my breath.
It must also be noted that the raid itself has become an arguably bourgeoisie idea where participation now requires a buy in of $350 a share for GameStop stock – even AMC stock while not as expensive per share as GameStop still requires a buy in of $13.26 a share as of writing. Most ordinary people do not have that kind of money just lying around especially during a global economy crushing pandemic. Many working class people simply cannot afford to self isolate and are being forced back out to work for poverty wages which essentially bars them from participation through circumstance. A big part of the success of this phenomenon likely lies in the American government’s recent round of stimulus checks as many people had a bit of extra income and were sitting at home on the internet bored and restless under the frustrating conditions of lockdown. Under normal non-pandemic conditions it is difficult to see how the circumstances could have arisen to allow the Wall Street raid to take place and is another example of how the pandemic has and is changing the world around us.
GameStop’s employees will also likely not benefit from recent events, the only positive factor being that the company is safe from bankruptcy for now. However, the battle being waged on Wall Street will do little to address the numerous grievances of employees who have used the media attention to highlight their unfair contracts, inadequate pay and working conditions. The question also arises of what will happen when inevitably the artificially inflated stock price collapses with the company possibly plunging back into financial difficulty therefore putting many jobs at risk in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
It may seem that I am being unfairly critical on the whole affair but that would not be true. I see the GameStop event as an invaluable lesson on collective power and what happens when we refuse to be divided by politics, race and class and work together towards a common goal. Just imagine what could be achieved if that energy was turned to social justice causes such as climate activism, BLM, Pension inequality and demands for healthcare to be free at the point of use just to name a few. The GameStop phenomenon has achieved in less than a week what Occupy Wall Street tried to do over years. Over time the, Occupy movement arguably became almost a circus attraction instead of a protest and the message it promoted became reduced to an attraction for tourists and bankers to gawk at. In a fraction of that time the Wall Street raid has shaken one of the world’s premier financial institutions to its core and reminded them that the chickens do eventually come home to roost. Will Wall Street recover? Yes but will they forget? No.
This is not a turning point in the struggle for class equality but instead a well overdue commentary upon the dying neoliberal beast that is the global corporatist machine. The mask has now slipped, exposing the system for what it really is. We all knew it was corrupt to the core but watching bankers stamp their feet and desperately scramble to change the rules when the public found a way to play the system to their advantage really hammered the point home for the ordinary individual. We must use GameStop as a roadmap for further collective action in which the internet will play a key role. I suppose my closing thoughts on the matter are this; you can only be disgusted at how bad things have become when strangers are desperate enough to take Hail Mary stock trading tips from other strangers on an anonymous internet message board and ultimately, I think it sums up the sad and desperate place we are as a society.