How ‘Flows Before Pros’ Is Disrupting Stock Markets

Some worry that the battle between the flows generated by small investors and the pros, are artificially pumping stocks higher.

How ‘Flows Before Pros’ Is Disrupting Stock Markets
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in U.S. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

It seemed inevitable that the populist forces that have disrupted almost everything else in recent years would eventually arrive to democratize investing. But the sheer impact of retail trading has been shocking, primarily to financial professionals who appeared ill-equipped to deal with it. Organizing via social media, the amateurs have been able to send so-called “meme stocks” like GameStop Corp. soaring, while hedge funds that bet against the chosen companies feel the pain. Some worry that the battle between the “flows” generated by small investors and the “pros,” or professionals, artificially pumps stocks higher in a feedback loop that could lead to a collapse. Others worry such wild trading could ruin the purpose of equity markets: the efficient allocation of capital.

1. How did this all start?

Online brokerage Robinhood Markets Inc. and other app-based platforms have brought a new wave of at-home traders into the market, raising concerns about the “gamification” of investing. New accounts surged early last year after a move by giant brokerage Charles Schwab Corp. to eliminate fees rippled through the industry, just as the coronavirus pandemic left many people stuck at home. Those traders on r/wallstreetbets -- the Reddit forum dedicated to “making money and being amused while doing it” -- set their sights on exploiting a financial system that’s perceived to have locked them out for years. Much to the horror of the financial establishment, r/wallstreetbets then figured out a way to capitalize on this system and bend it to their own will.

2. How many are there?

More and more. As of last August, retail traders made up a fifth of stock volume in the U.S., double the share of a decade ago and behind only market makers and high-frequency traders at 43.5%, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. The retail segment is now larger than quantitative investors (15.9%), hedge funds (9%), traditional long-only participants (6.4%) and bank-affiliated traders (5.8%).

3. How are they changing the way markets work?

Traditional value investing used to be about finding an undervalued company and buying the stock while it’s relatively cheap, in the hope that it would appreciate. To the retail traders, it’s not clear whether value matters very much. Some of the stocks targeted are seen as a long way from profitability and from the type of fundamentals that would normally attract investors. Yet once a chosen stock gets going and the price starts rising, it attracts even more attention and flows from the r/wallstreetbets crowd. One way of thinking about this is that prices used to be self-limiting. Stocks would rise to a point where valuations (earnings multiples or price-to-book) would become unattractive, which would cause the stock to go down and give valuations a chance to normalize. Nowadays, prices can go much higher than traditional security analysis might suggest.

4. Why is that?

Flows before Pros is one way to put it. The simple premise here is that in an environment where flows matter more than fundamentals, the people trading stocks in their basements might be better equipped to judge where money is going next. They might have a better sense of the strength of a stock’s particular “story,” for instance, or a better sense of where the forum’s hive mind will go next, than portfolio managers wedded to their valuation models. In a more-than-a-little-ironic turn of events, the professionals may now be chasing retail flows.

5. Who are some of the pros here?

Short sellers -- funds that borrow a stock and sell it, betting that the price will have gone down by the time they have to buy it to give it back -- have become the target. Such firms usually would unveil a new position to great fanfare, expecting to cast a cloud over the company’s shares. The scrum this year over GameStop -- in which retail traders went head-to-head with short-selling firm Citron Research -- suggests that could become a thing of the past, and in fact, Citron’s Andrew Left announced on Jan. 29 that the firm will no longer publish short selling research. A hedge fund or short-seller advertising a bet against a stock might now be the equivalent of waving a red flag to r/wallstreetbets’ herd of bulls: a signal to charge in with call options and force a move higher. The predators have turned prey.

6. What’s the strategy?

The folks on r/wallstreetbets often target stocks where they see a possibility of exploiting a structural weakness in markets. For instance, some have been upfront about buying stock options to try to squeeze share prices higher. (Options are contracts that give the holder the right to buy or sell the underlying security at a predetermined price after a set period of time; commission-free apps such as Robinhood have made options trading far easier.) The idea is that buying a ton of options forces market-makers -- the intermediaries in the transaction -- to hedge their own exposure by buying the stock in the underlying company. That dynamic may be enough to move a target share price upwards, which can then spark more call-buying in a frenzied feedback loop: The stock goes up, short sellers give up, they buy stock to surrender, and their buying pushes the stock up more.

How ‘Flows Before Pros’ Is Disrupting Stock Markets

7. Can the small really outweigh the Wall Street whales?

The thing to look at here is not the amount of money that retail investors are spending, but the amount of leverage embedded in that spend. Here’s one scenario:

  • Bob has a Robinhood account. He bought a single $3,250-strike weekly call option contract on Amazon stock on Aug. 14 for $1,500. That option happens thanks to a market-maker -- call her Jenn -- sitting at a large dealer-bank. But Jenn isn’t taking the other side of Bob’s trade, instead she is aiming to be a neutral facilitator. Her job is to make markets, not bet on them, so she wants to hedge her position. She does this by buying Amazon shares, making a calculation based on what’s called the delta of her position. The delta is how much the option will change in value based on the price of the underlying stock. In this case, she judges that she needs to buy $66,100 worth of Amazon stock to get to neutral. If shares of Amazon go up, she might have to pay out on Bob’s option, but at least that will be offset by the gain on her Amazon stock.
  • A few days later Amazon stock does indeed rise, going up 5%, so Jenn needs to rebalance her books in order to keep her position neutral. This time, because the delta of her position has moved higher, she needs to buy even more stock. In fact, she needs to buy $230,000 worth of Amazon shares. Bob’s puny $1,500 outlay has been transformed into $230,000 worth of share-buying.
  • By targeting dealers’ exposure in a concerted way, some retail traders are in effect trying to take advantage of a phenomenon known as a “gamma squeeze” -- betting that as the value of Amazon stock gets closer to an option’s strike price, dealers will have to buy more and more of the underlying stock.

8. What about the hedge funds’ shorts?

Gamma squeezes can be more effective when coupled with a “short squeeze” in a company’s shares. Traders on r/wallstreetbets have often identified companies with a lot of short interest and a limited number of shares available for trading. That makes things harder when short sellers have to scramble to buy back shares and close their positions. This kind of dynamic also helps push the price of a stock up, feeding the loop. The hedge fund Melvin Capital revealed Jan. 25 it had accepted an injection of $2.75 billion from rivals Citadel and Point72 Asset Management after short positions left it with major losses. The firm’s assets fell to about $8 billion in January after starting the year with $12.5 billion.

9. Is this just a game?

It would be tempting to dismiss all of the above as a game if it weren’t actually moving stocks and impacting real companies. Shares of GameStop, a video-game retailer, surged exponentially this year -- drawing attention even from Elon Musk, whose own soaring stock made him briefly the world’s richest person this year. Message boards were alight with suggestions for what GameStop could actually do with that very real money before the stock came crashing back. So at some point these random flows start impacting fundamentals too. AMC Entertainment Holdings, another meme stock, avoided bankruptcy in late January by capitalizing on a stock rally fueled largely by retail traders. Some hedge funds may be selling some of the stocks they’re most bullish on to cover losses, which would hurt performance.

10. So what slowed Gamestop’s surge?

Robinhood halted trades in some meme stocks including GameStop, setting off a massive outcry from retail investors (and some politicians) who saw the move as a way of limiting GameStop’s astonishing rally and protecting hedge funds. So why’d they do it? Robinhood Chief Executive Officer Vlad Tenev said in written testimony for a Feb. 18 congressional hearing that the brokerage had to meet demands from the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., which is the main clearinghouse for U.S. stock markets. Settling stock trades takes two days in the U.S. and in the interim, the brokerage is on the hook. Clearinghouses require brokerages to stump up collateral -- a portion of a trade’s value -- to cover this risk. As buy orders poured in, Robinhood found itself on the hook for a lot of collateral, straining its finances. In response, it drew down its credit line and restricted buying of certain stocks. It then listed limits on purchases of shares and options contracts for 23 companies including GameStop and AMC. Tenev called conspiracy theories that Robinhood coordinated with Citadel to restrict retail investors “absolutely false.” Ken Griffin, Citadel’s billionaire founder, said in his prepared remarks that “we had no role in Robinhood’s decision to limit trading in GameStop or any other of the ‘meme’ stocks.” The clearing and collateral requirements were put in place as part of the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform intended to reduce systemic risk in the markets. They are, somewhat ironically, supposed to protect investors.

11. What do regulators say?

For the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, fighting online commentary that hypes stocks is an uphill struggle, mainly because it’s hard to prove such posts are part of an illicit scheme to manipulate the market. One man who helped fuel the massive surge in GameStop, Keith Gill, the Redditor and YouTuber who became a symbol for the charge into GameStop, has been sued for alleged securities fraud -- a charge he denied in written testimony to the congressional hearing, which was called to examine the “meme” frenzy and whether new rules are needed. In December, Massachusetts regulators filed a complaint against Robinhood alleging it aggressively marketed its platform to novice investors and failed to put controls in place to protect them. In the meantime, Conor Sen, founder of Peachtree Creek Investments and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, has argued that dealers might need to start pricing options differently to make up for this behavior.

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