Undone by their own greed: The GameStop short squeeze hitting Wall Street

BY:C.J. Atkins| January 28, 2021
Undone by their own greed: The GameStop short squeeze hitting Wall Street


What’s happening on Wall Street?

Investors have been rushing into the nearly bankrupt strip mall video game retailer GameStop faster than shoppers hoping to score a PlayStation5 at a Black Friday door-crashers sale. Suddenly, the company is valued more than big box tech behemoth Best Buy. Its shares are trading at a volume surpassing even the biggest stock of them all, Apple.

If you think it’s because GameStop suddenly re-invented the video game wheel, the answer is no. In fact, other than the hiring of a new CEO, not much at the company has changed since last year when a share of GameStop stock could be had for as little as $5. But at their peak (as of this writing) on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 28, the company’s shares hit $500 in premarket trading. Cumulatively, GameStop stock has skyrocketed 1,200% in the recent period.

With game enthusiasts embracing streaming subscriptions and turning away from plastic cartridges, many analysts have been predicting GameStop will soon be going the way of Blockbuster—another modern incarnation of video killing the radio star. So if GameStop did little, if anything, to turn around its sagging fortunes, why are its shares in such high demand?

The only thing that changed is that Wall Street powerhouse hedge funds and short-sellers have lost their monopoly on gaming the stock market casino.

The meteoric rise in GameStop shares—and to a lesser extent those of other troubled companies, like Bed Bath & Beyond, Blackberry, movie house AMC, and even candy maker Tootsie Roll—is being driven by the actions of a group of what the Wall Street professionals call dangerous amateurs.

Coordinating with each other on a section of the online platform Reddit called r/WallStreetBets, a huge number of relatively small-time investors (around 2.2 million of them by the most recent count) have teamed up to take on the big guys in a battle that has all the trappings of a Robin Hood tale.

The “short” in a nutshell

To understand the game plan of the WallStreetBets crowd, it’s necessary to know some of the lingo of Wall Street gambling—especially the concept of the “short.”

A short is when an investor essentially “borrows” a company’s stock from a broker. The investor then takes that borrowed stock and sells it on the market. The hope of the “short seller” is that the value of that company’s stock will drop before they are due to return their borrowed shares, allowing them to re-buy the stock at a cheaper price and return it to the broker—pocketing the difference as a profit.

In essence, they are placing a bet against a company’s future. They believe the company is worth less than the market is valuing it at, and when that reality sets in among others, then they will get to cash in on their foresight.

As an example, a short-seller may borrow a share of Company A and sell it for the current market price of $100. They do so because they believe Company A isn’t really worth $100 per share and eventually the price will drop. If they are right, and the price of Company A shares sink to $60, then the short-seller will re-buy the share at the new price and return it to the broker (called “covering the short”). The $40 difference is their profit.

If they are wrong, however, and Company A’s shares go up, then they will lose out on their bad bet. Let’s say that Company A shares go from $100 to $120. When the short-seller’s stock loan comes due, they have to buy a share at whatever the current price is and return it to the broker. Their loss in this case would be $20. But what if the price of Company A shares go even higher, to $150, $200, or $500?

In a regular stock transaction, when a person actually buys a share (as opposed to borrowing it like a short-seller does), their potential loss is capped at whatever they paid. You can’t lose more than you put in. But for a short-seller, the potential loss is actually endless. When the due date comes for their borrowed shares, they have to pay whatever it takes to cover their short.

Gambling against GameStop

Now, back to the real world and the GameStop situation.

A number of weeks ago, the “amateur” investors on WallStreetBets started focusing their attention on the huge hedge funds with massive short bets against GameStop. They targeted outfits like Melvin Capital and Citron Research that had taken short positions in GameStop and then spent months talking about how bad the company was (an intentional effort to drive down its share price).

The gambling against GameStop had gotten so extreme that there were over 71 million borrowed short shares out there, even though the company has only 69 million shares—short-sellers were “borrowing” stock that didn’t even exist! These Wall Street titans became the villains for the Reddit Robin Hoods. (Appropriately, Robinhood is the name of a popular trading app used by many of the so-called untraditional investors.)

WallStreetBets members fantasized about how great it would be to make these short-sellers scream by driving up the price of GameStop. Some believed that GameStop really had a chance to turn around and was being unfairly punished by the short-sellers; for others it was simply the joy that would come from sticking it to the hedge funds.

They’d done it before, on a smaller scale, with other shorted companies. If they got together again and acted in unison with their dollars, they could inflict some real pain on Melvin and Citron.

Putting the squeeze on the short sellers

Within days, WallStreetBets (and others who followed in their wake) engineered what’s called a “short squeeze”—an escalation of a company’s share price that forces short-sellers to buy at an inflated value. Panicked traders at Melvin, Citron, and other big short-sellers reacted exactly as predicted: They scrambled to cover their shorts, knowing that the longer they waited, the more they risked losing.

By the middle of this week, the short-sellers were surrendering. Citron’s managing partner Andrew Left admitted the company had to cover its short Tuesday afternoon at “a loss of 100%.” As for Melvin Capital, it was only kept afloat by an injection of $2.75 billion in funds from other asset management firms. Data from financial analytics firm S3 Partners shows that GameStop short-sellers have collectively lost more than $5 billion in the month of January alone.

The masters of finance on Wall Street are, to put it mildly, pissed. This is a crowd that has enjoyed pretty much unrestrained power for decades, dodging the efforts of governments and activists to rein them in. To be outmaneuvered by a bunch of millennials on the internet has them seeing red—both literally and metaphorically.

Traditional stock market analysts and financial commentators are musing about whether the coordinated moves of WallStreetBets are illegal. Many are urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to chase down what they’re characterizing as a “pump and dump” scheme. They are crying out for help from the same regulators they themselves spend all their time avoiding and undermining.

These are the guys who brought us the financial crisis of 2008-09 and the Great Recession. They’re the ones who have made billions of dollars off the pandemic in the past year while the rest of the country lost their jobs and homes—or died from coronavirus. Whatever losses they’re experiencing now are certainly well-deserved.

That makes it very tempting to cheer on the WallStreetBets crusaders. Richard Smith, a market behavior analyst at the Foundation for the Study of Cycles, described their role to Markets Insider: “You have these media-driven platforms where the media isn’t controlled by the institutions in the way that it has historically been.” He characterized this as “a sign that the institutions are losing control.”

Heroes or same-old capitalists?

But r/WallStreetBets is not necessarily a den of folk heroes or investors driven by some social conscience. Some are saying they plan to make charitable donations with some of their winnings, but other forum members are simply bragging about all the money they’ve made from outsmarting the old Wall Street. One of the key ringleaders of the short squeeze effort, someone who goes by the username DeepFuckValue, claims to have turned a $50,000 GameStop investment into $20 million amidst the chaos.

Undoubtedly some of the more talented among the WallStreetBets crowd will be recruited to join the ranks of top firms—rebels eventually co-opted by the system. Others will get too caught up in the euphoria and eventually lose all their money when the bubble bursts. And let’s face it, this is capitalism—the bubble always bursts.

It’s also necessary to remember that the most powerful segments of finance capital usually find a way to shift the price for their gambling onto the rest of society by one means or another (remember the bailouts for the “too big to fail” banks?). It would be delusional to think that Wall Street isn’t making moves to offload its losses and go on the offensive.

The empire of high finance is already striking back. By Wednesday evening, the r/WallStreetBets forum on Reddit had gone dark, for reasons not yet clear. The WallStreetBets server on Discord was shut down. On Thursday morning, brokers started implementing restrictions on GameStop trades, raising expectations that more action will be taken by the establishment to regain control.

Taking note of the fact that trades in GameStop, AMC, and other shorted stocks were now blocked on the Robinhood platform, one Twitter user observed, appropriately, “The free market is only free until rich people lose money.”

Wall Street’s control over our society won’t be meaningfully challenged by simply replacing one group of gamblers with a different, younger group of gamblers. It wasn’t the robbers like Bonnie and Clyde that beat the banks and fought back against the Great Depression in the 1930s—it was the coalition of labor, African-American, and other people’s movements that won the New Deal and put capitalism on notice.

Now, as then, only organized political struggle by the working class and democratic movements has the potential to upend the power of finance capital for good and allow us to collectively decide our future.

So we can enjoy a laugh at the misfortunes of the hedge funds and short-sellers, but then we have to keep organizing.

Image: GameStop.






    C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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