NEW YORK: An army of retail investors that has routed Wall Street's professionals in recent days was dealt a blow on Thursday (Jan 28), after online brokerages including Robinhood Markets restricted trading in red-hot GameStop and other stocks that had soared this week.
Retail investors, celebrities and policymakers decried the restrictions. Participants in online forums seethed, accusing the trading platforms of seeking to protect Wall Street's interests at the expense of smaller investors.
"Robin Hood: a parable about stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Robinhood: an app about protecting the rich from being short squeezed by the poor," Jake Chervinsky, a lawyer for fintech company Compound, wrote on Twitter.
Robinhood reversed course by the end of the day and said limited trading in the stocks would resume on Friday. Shares of retail favorites including GameStop and AMC Entertainment, which erased an early surge on news of the restrictions then rose after hours.
The chief executive of brokerage app Robinhood said he made the "difficult decision" to restrict buying in more than a dozen volatile stocks, to protect the company and its customers.
"We absolutely did not do this at the direction of any market maker or hedge fund ... The reason we did it because Robinhood as a brokerage firm, we have lots of financial requirements," Robinhood's Vladimir Tenev said on CNBC.
"In order to protect the firm and protect our customers, we had to limit buying in these stocks."
The restrictions, and their partial reversal, mark a turn in a battle that many have framed as a showdown between hedge funds and other institutions against retail investors.
Until Thursday, it appeared retail traders had the upper hand. Coordinating on forums such as Reddit’s Wallstreetbets, the small investors forced hedge funds to unwind short positions that had bet on the decline of shares in companies such as GameStop and American Airlines. That activity resulted in a short squeeze that sent the shares soaring.
GameStop, the video game retailer whose 1,700 per cent rally has been at the heart of the slugfest in the past week, initially rallied to more than US$480 a share on Thursday, Refinitiv data showed. It closed down around 44 per cent at US$193.60
AMC's value was cut by nearly half and Koss Corp dropped by around a third.
"The Robinhood ban on those stocks have put a pretty good end to (the rally)," said Dennis Dick, proprietary trader at Bright Trading in Las Vegas. "Everybody's trying to hit the exit button at the same time."
SOME TRADING TO RESUME FRIDAY
Citing market volatility and the need to keep investors informed, Robinhood, a Menlo Park, California-based app, said on a blog that it was halting trading of viral stocks including Gamestop, American Airlines and AMC and raising margin requirements for certain securities.
Two customers sued Robinhood over the trading ban, seeking damages.
Robinhood said in a later post that from Friday it planned to allow limited purchases of these securities.
Some users complained on Twitter that Robinhood had notified them that it was selling their shares, without their consent. A Robinhood spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Interactive Brokers, another online trading platform, also restricted trading in those stocks.
Robinhood has seen business boom during the coronavirus pandemic as more home-bound consumers took to trading stocks online. The app now counts more than 13 million users.
Social media chatrooms are beginning to resemble the squawk boxes on trading floors as a new generation of retail traders gains influence.
US Senator Sherrod Brown, incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee, said he will hold a hearing on the current state of the stock market.
"People on Wall Street only care about the rules when they're the ones getting hurt," Brown said in a statement.
Before its retreat, GameStop briefly became the biggest stock in the Russell 2000 index of small caps, according to Zerohedge.
Lawmakers from both main parties in Congress, including Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Ted Cruz, criticized the decision by Robinhood to restrict retail trading. Robinhood did not respond to requests for comment.
Other stocks swept up in the drama were Canada's First Majestic Silver , Blackberry, Australian nickel and cobalt explorer GME Resources.
JP Morgan named 45 stocks that it said may be susceptible to short squeezes and similar "fragility events", including Macerich, Cheesecake Factory and Stitch Fix.
US equity markets rebounded more than 1 per cent on Thursday after the short squeeze on Wednesday fueled a 2 per cent slide in New York's S&P 500 as investors sold other assets to cover their losses.
Short-sellers are sitting on estimated losses of US$71 billion from positions in US companies this year, data from analytics firm Ortex showed.
Long derided by market professionals as "dumb money", the pack of retail traders, some of them former bankers working for themselves, has become an increasingly powerful force worth 20 per cent of equity orders last year, UBS data showed.
The war began last week when hedge fund short-seller Andrew Left of Citron Capital bet against GameStop and was met with a barrage of retail traders betting the other way. He said on Wednesday he had abandoned the bet.