Near the middle of 2019, a Reddit user, known as “Roaring Kitty” boasted his $53,000 investment in “GameStop” a declining video game company. GameStop bought and sold video games, and it isn’t hard to see why that kind of model seems unsustainable in the streaming and digital age. u/RoaringKitty made his post on a subReddit known as “r/WallStreetBets” henceforth known as WSB. Every commenter on WSB cried out that this investment was foolhardy, that GameStop was dying but u/RoaringKitty paid them no heed and continued to keep his investment there. Today, that $53,000 stake is worth $48 Million. How did this happen?
To begin, we need to understand a few terms.
What is a share?
When a company is formed, it’s corpus consists of a set of discrete units. The owners of these discrete units are shareholders and become direct stakeholders invested in the company. In the case of GameStop, there are roughly 65 million shares up for grabs.
What is a short?
A short is a financial action one can take concerning shares. While the obvious way of profiting off of stocks is to buy some shares, wait for the prices to rise, sell and profit off of the differences, there is a means of profiting off of the fall in the price of a share. The way to do this is through “shorting”.
What one does is, when they anticipate that the price of a company’s shares is going to drop in value, they “borrow” shares from shareholders, sell them at current market prices, then once the price drops, they buy the shares back and “return” them, and keep the difference for themselves. Now, when one shorts a given company’s stock, it is legally required to eventually return the borrowed shares. This means they have to buy back the shares, regardless of what they cost.
In the case of GameStop, hedge funds (financial institutions that profit through the buying and selling of stocks and shares) shorted 140% of GameStop’s shares. How do you short 40% more shares than those that exist? Well, that’s actually not too wild. Essentially, shares can be double-counted. Suppose I buy a share in GameStop and then lend it to a broker who intends to short it. This broker sells it to another customer, named say, Saman. Now, to Saman, this is just another share, there is no association with me, so she can further lend the share to someone else who could short it. This way, we can have over a 100% short interest.
What did u/RoaringKitty do?
Now, u/RoaringKitty didn’t just brag about a weird investment, he noticed something nobody else did: GameStop wasn’t a dying company. GameStop had reasonably large cash reserves, they didn’t have much debt, and with the release of the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series, the chain of stores was doing alright.
Roaring Kitty started talking about his investment on YouTube, Reddit, and TikTok, and people began to notice. Specifically, Michael Burry. Some of you might know him from Christian Bale’s portrayal of him in The Big Short, but for those who don’t, Burry was one of the first people to realize that there was a crisis imminent before the 2008 Economic Crisis and made a massive profit off of it. Burry, at last count, made a 1400% profit off of his investment in GameStop in just under 5 months.
This discourse on GameStop’s financials, as well as public filings showing massive short interests from various hedge funds like Citron and Melvin Capital, became the seeds of a perfect storm. u/RoaringKitty mobilized r/WallStreetBets with the information that GameStop was viable fuelling thousands of members of the subReddit to buy millions of shares. This artificially drove the price of GameStop stock up hundreds of dollars and decimated the short position of various hedge funds. Melvin Capital lost nearly $4 billion throughout January.
While initially, buying GameStop stock was sound financial advice, eventually anti-billionaire, anti-hedge fund rhetoric swept the subReddit, and users decided that keeping the stock was now a moral crusade to crush meddling Wall Street titans. You can find posts like this across the website describing their hatred for Wall Street money movers, and this no doubt fueled the stock buying. Eventually, various influencers, including Elon Musk joined the bandwagon, advocating to buy GameStop and crush the short sellers. Musk specifically dislikes shorting since firms have tried to short Tesla several times over the years.
Robinhood, a free, fee-less trading platform began restricting trading GameStop stock, to avoid “volatility” in the stock market. Now, as surprising as it may sound, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. all cried out that this was anti-competitive and anti-capitalist, you’d never expect to see the three of them agree on anything, let alone the free market. Robinhood was only the first of several services to restrict trading, an act that has led to several class-action lawsuits. This leaves a valuable question on the table, who gets to truly “regulate” the market? Why is social market manipulation “volatility” while a few billionaires doing it is a “hustle”? The actual nature of power within market structures has been exposed, and it cannot be allowed to fade from public memory. The “free” market is a selectively free market.
Now, as trading continues it is to be seen which forces buckle first, the Redditors, or the hedge funds. As the value fluctuates, there are ripple effects across the industry. This entire incident is also provoking a series of questions about the power of social media. A user on Reddit mobilized millions of dollars through thousands of small traders, and apps like Parler managed to mobilize thousands to storm the US Capitol. While one shouldn’t conflate the two events, there needs to be cognizance of how these networks hold the power to organize people in ways that the people are not prepared for. But beyond that, the story is still unfolding, and we need to ask ourselves, who wins at the end of this? How do we even imagine “winning” in this scenario? And, where does this leave us?
Vibhor is a third-year economics major, and frequent Redditor, with an interest in economic history, behavioural science and decentralised systems. He is a frequent critic of the free market and enjoys reading about market failure and similar shenanigans.