Ashish Kaushal is a former investor and founder of Consciously Unbiased. He is based out of California.
Redditors appear to be beating Wall Street at its own game.
This week, amateur day traders encouraged each other to pile up shares and call options in the struggling video-game retailer GameStop , sending its price soaring and decimating the coffers of private-equity firms that had taken a short position in the company. Melvin Capital, for one, lost billions of dollars.
Hedge-fund managers accused the members of the Reddit forum WallStreetBets of manipulating stock, even though the users acted in the same way hedge funds have long behaved when they discuss positions in closed-door meetings and on the trading-room floor. The ensuing outrage only made clear that they don’t like a challenge to their power. It’s as if these financiers want two different sets of rules: a kind of socialism for the wealthy, but leaving the layperson to fend for him or herself.
But this isn’t just about money, nor is it simply a trolling exercise. It is about protest.
The run on GameStop and other stocks has punctured the facade that Wall Street learned any lessons since the 2008 financial crash. That this was driven by people on Reddit – a platform where the largest group of U.S. users are between the ages of 18 and 29 – suggests that this is the work of a disillusioned generation using the tools that have been made available. And so this moment looks like the natural maturation of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one decade later – and it should not be ignored.
Hedge funds have long held enormous advantages that amateur traders don’t have, including access to more capital, more leverage and more financial instruments. But the GameStop traders, powered by Reddit and trading apps, were able to overcome those advantages and were even open and transparent about their actions, unlike hedge funds. Regulators may now be focused on what the WallStreetBets users are doing, but they should be just as focused on making trading more transparent, just as exchange-traded funds are.
In a way, the Redditors are occupying digital space just as anti-capitalist protesters occupied streets a decade earlier. This form of protest could be more effective – and may spawn copycat movements elsewhere. Indeed, some European stocks are already being earmarked as the “next GameStop,” including Polish games developer CD Projekt and German pharma company Evotec.
People have realized that this “weaponized options trading” is a profitable and satisfying way to play hedge funds at their own game. Wall Street might not be deeply shaken by losing this one bet – Melvin Capital, after all, has already received bailouts from two investors – but it should be. While the boomer generation fuelled Wall Street’s growth through their pensions, savings and 401ks, these traders might have less power than they thought.
The White House rightly said that the GameStop rally served as a “good reminder that the stock market is not the only measure of the health of our economy, and it does not reflect how working and middle-class families are doing.” And yet while Wall Street tightened up regulations on shorting and single-stock futures, the practice remained legal and continued beyond the 2008 financial crash. The U.K., for its part, banned shorting to guard against the instability it caused.
What this means is that U.S. hedge funds are still able to bet against and profit off struggling businesses that employ millions of Americans. The actions of those who gamble for a living on Wall Street have consequences for those who work for a living on Main Street.
This is exactly what happened in 2008. When big financial institutions bet against the housing bubble, they made billions, and their customers lost their houses and life savings. Such reckless disregard for the lives of millions of individuals is not the nature of capitalism at its core, but rather the distorted fraternity-casino Americans have continued to witness on Wall Street.
For too long in the United States, there has been two systems of capitalism – one for the working class and one for the financiers. A stiff wind blew against that house of cards this week – and if nothing changes, that could soon become a hurricane.
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