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A broker reacts while trading at his computer terminal at a stock brokerage firm in Mumbai, on Dec. 11, 2018.

Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Joseph Rosen teaches at Dawson College in Montreal.

I had no clue how exhilarating day trading would be. As a lifelong pinko, my only encounter with the stock market was a visit to Occupy Wall Street’s tent city in New York in 2011. But a recent two-week thrill ride on the roller coaster of high-risk speculative stocks turned me on to one of the few vices I hadn’t yet indulged in: gambling.

My sister had a hot stock tip, and my mom jumped on it fast, so I rushed to apply for an investment app for my phone. Before I was approved – there was a long lineup of couch conquistadors looking for El Dorado – the stock jumped 50 per cent. I told my ex-wife, who also jumped in. (The women in my life appear to have more moxie than I do.) This wasn’t a “safe” investment such as Apple , Netflix or Quebec’s cannabis dispensary. The company promises to produce lithium, an essential component for electric car batteries, but its value was purely speculative.

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Pandemic lockdowns are conducive to frenzied speculation. None of us have anything to do, so there isn’t much to talk about other than the future. We don’t know which businesses will survive or which industries will thrive. Even my local Starbucks has closed, rendering pumpkin spice futures precarious. Despite the monotony, uncertainty has become a daily reality. Even getting a haircut has become riskier: If I get bangs, will I lose my sense of smell?

We’ve adjusted to daily risks and an uncertain future, but we’re bored out of our skulls. Increased alcohol consumption, one of the main advantages of the first lockdown, no longer rescues us from the doldrums of social isolation. We want a new drug.

Watching the stock’s price rise and fall turned a week into a crazy ride that infused each day with potential catastrophe or wild success. One day the stock tip hit Reddit, the next it hit Twitter. The money doubled. I refreshed my screen every five minutes. As it dropped, we wondered if that was the moment to jump; when it rose again, we were high as kites. My mom, sister, ex-wife and I were all constantly texting back and forth. After months of having little to say – other than complain about Canada’s vaccine rollout – we were in constant communication. And then the stock climbed to almost 20 times the original value. My sister, who invested a fair bit early on, was for a moment worth $2-million – on paper.

Nothing had changed at the company – my family’s fortunes we’re riding on Reddit rumours that could change at any moment. Gambling turns time into a drug, and we’ve all got plenty of time on our hands. For a moment, I wondered: Why am I working like a dog teaching humanities when you can just double your money in a day on a hot stock tip? The lure of easy money made me question my lefty life choices. But then the stock dipped again, and I was back to the hangover of socialist realism.

It was like a legal drug for the whole family. Trading injects adrenaline into the monotonous minutes of the Groundhog Day the pandemic has become. But what’s trending now on Netflix is The Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 movie about stock brokers in which star Jonah Hill snorted so much fake cocaine while filming that he had to go to the hospital.

My relatives and I aren’t the only ones interested in the heart-pounding rush of speculative capitalism. This year’s Super Bowl featured an ad for Robinhood, the investment app that allows you to buy and sell stocks while wearing pyjamas at home. Are the unwashed masses finally going to bring Main Street to Wall Street?

Despite bad PR after the GameStop debacle, Robinhood remains the most popular trading app, despite competition from Webull, Ameritrade and Wealthsimple, with 600,000 downloads in one day at the end of January. From six million users in 2018, it ended 2020 with more than 13 million – many of them first-time investors, often millennials.

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The dream of easy money is even more dazzling in these uncertain economic times. I’m older than millennials, but like them I don’t own a home and am nervously watching real estate prices rise. As I watched the stock fluctuate, I kept recalculating what kind of down payment I’d have if I doubled my RRSPs – okay, plus my line of credit. Like down-and-out desperados hoping for one big score, the increasingly precarious middle classes are looking to the stock market.

On the one hand, investment apps cut out financial middlemen in the same way the internet sidelined record labels, porn magazines and mainstream media. They’re turning the stock market into the Wild West, where anyone can strike gold. On the other hand, I only ever buy lottery tickets when I’m depressed. When I’m unhappy, I’ll pay for a momentary dream of a different future. Day trading doesn’t just alleviate boredom – it provides an escape from despair.

I didn’t get approval for my investment app until the stock stabilized, but my mom and sister did well, and I’m itching to roll the dice next time. Will there be a revolution in day trading? Or are stock market odds, as in Vegas, always in the house’s favour? One wonders what will happen when the Russian bots get onto Reddit’s day trading boards. Till then, us everyday schmoes have some fake cocaine to get us through the pandemic blues.

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