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Roaring Kitty is back?

From Loretta's book "Technocapitalism"


Fast forward to 2020. When the pandemic hit, people noticed that the virus was financially squeezing small businesses and private individuals, but Techtitans like Amazon or giant corporations like Walmart were making even more money than before, and the financial market was booming because stocks kept climbing. The financialized economy had struck yet another blow against ordinary people: the rich were getting richer while the middle class was getting poorer. The desire to undo this unjust system resurfaced. This time, the wind of revolution started to blow across the internet, through online forums like Reddit, where an army of young people in lockdown, known as Redditors, spent most of their time staring at their computer screens while exchanging ideas and financial strategies with each other. One of the most popular forums for “pyjama traders” was WallStreetBets.

Created in 2012, WallStreetBets is a subgroup of Reddit, known for its motto “make money and have fun at the same time.”182 Until 2019, WallStreetBets had a few thousand subscribers. Then, when a few big brokerage firms eliminated commissions from their apps, making online trading free and accessible to everybody, the forum exploded. Within a few days, the number of subscribers reached half a million. People were eager to invest, but they were even more eager to have fun talking about it at the same time. By spring 2020, when the first lockdown got underway, the number of participants in WallStreetBets had risen to one million and exchanges on the forum began taking a dangerous turn. Vulgarities and violent rants, mixed with funny and outrageous memes, threatened its integrity. Here is how a Washington Post article described the atmosphere on the digital platform:

. . . anonymous posters using monikers like “chainsaw vasectomy” traded stock tips in a blend of casual profanity, mutual cheerleading and savvy analysis. . . . Users celebrated their “tendies,” a shorthand for chicken tenders that meant profits. They referred to each other with the self-deprecating, if offensive, term “retards.” Investors with “diamond hands” had the nerves to hold an investment position until, like the rocket ship icon that decorated many posts, it headed to the stars.

But in April 2020, the moderators kicked WallStreetBets’ founder, Jaime Rogozinski, out of the forum for “attempting to monetize” the subreddit community. WallStreetBets had developed a life of its own.

Among the participants in the forum was Keith Gill, known by the Reddit username “DeepFuckingValue,” and the YouTube and Twitter alias “Roaring Kitty.”184 Gill, who was a professional financial analyst from Massachusetts, had been tracking GameStop shares since 2019. GameStop is a 1984 store chain that sells video games and gaming equipment from real shops mostly located in strip malls and shopping centers. In his YouTube channel, Gill had been posting his analysis, which can be summarized as follows: GameStop shares are undervalued and therefore people should buy them.

Around the same time, well-known investor Michael Burry of Scion Asset Management—who had been the first to anticipate the bursting of the subprime bubble, making a fortune shorting. the housing market, as featured in the film The Big Short—acquired a 3.3 percent stake in GameStop. He shared Gill’s view and even wrote to the company’s board of directors urging them to buy back the company’s shares. With stocks at an all-time low, he argued in the letter, the company could buy back all the shares using the $480 million it had in cash. Michael Burry’s analysis not only failed to convince GameStop’s board, but it also never appeared on the online forum. Keith Gill’s postings did.

Gill’s analysis attracted growing interest. Millennials were familiar with GameStop. During their childhood and adolescence, they had often spent time in these outlets buying or exchanging video games and socializing. For them, GameStop was a quintessential American product, the equivalent of an electronic-age apple pie.

The online distribution of video games had weakened the GameStop business model; kids could now download video games from their computer, and such technological innovation had been reflected in the value of the store’s shares, which had declined by 70 percent. GameStop lost most of its appeal and the video game chain began closing down outlets across the US. Gill argued, however, that the company was still solid. It was cash rich and had very little debt, and with good management could recover, which is what Michael Burry also believed.

Gill was convinced that the online distribution of games would take place at a slower pace than the market was anticipating; big games for consoles, for example, were still coming to the retail market and selling well. Acting as a professional financial influencer, Keith Gill presented his case for buying GameStop on his YouTube channel, showing data, blogs, comments, and interviews to back up his analysis. His advice was to buy GameStop’s stock at current prices and hold on to them for the next two years, when he believed it would be possible to resell them at a higher price. To prove his point, he invested $53,000 of his own money in GameStop.

At the end of 2020, stimulated by this analysis, some Redditors noticed that 84 percent of GameStop shares were held as short positions by a group of hedge funds, among them Melvin Capital.185 Short positioning is when one trader borrows stocks from another and sells them in the hope of rebuying them in the future at a lower price—pocketing the difference. GameStop’s weakness had drawn the attention of people specializing in shorting the market, speculators who bet against the stock of weak companies. These “short sellers” are very unpopular because their profits originate from the misfortune of others. By late 2019, short sellers accounted for nearly two-thirds of the GameStop shares in circulation: an indication that the hedge funds were betting the company would go bankrupt.

To the Redditors, it seemed that the hedge funds had colluded to achieve such a goal. Instead of liquidating their position when the stock was worth a few dollars, they were holding on, pushing the company into bankruptcy. If that happened, they would not have to pay any money for the stocks to be returned, because they would be worth zero. They were greedy, too greedy.

By holding the stock until it was worth nothing, the hedge funds became vulnerable to the assault of the Redditors, who plotted not only a popular digital financial uprising but one of the most spectacular short squeezes in the history of Wall Street. A short squeeze happens when investors push the prices of a stock up, in opposition to short sellers. As stocks climb, the profits of the short sellers get squeezed, eventually turning into losses. Here is how the Redditors orchestrated the short squeeze of 2021.

In January 2021, within hours of launching, the mantra “buy GameStop to squeeze the hedge funds” went viral. Young Redditors in lockdown, bored out of their minds, living in their pyjamas, enthusiastically embraced the call to action. They opened their Robinhood app and began emptying their bank accounts to buy shares. Money from the stimulus packages that the US government had handed them went straight into purchasing GameStop’s shares. The Robinhood platform jammed and had to be reloaded many times to handle the volume of trade.

Many Redditors remembered the catastrophe of the 2008 crash, how it had impacted their parents’ lives, and they wanted to get back at those who had caused it. Others had personally experienced the negative consequences of the financial meltdown and wanted to punish the perpetrators, as summarized in a quote from a Redditor published by the Washington Post:

“I bought a house in 2008 at the ripe age of 21 just months before the crash. I was lucky to be making decent money so young but the truth is I could just barely afford it with a roommate. Then the bottom fell out. These a--holes f---ed me. When I sold that home 5 years later, I was still down 15%,” wrote solidtwerks. “These f---ers owe me. I’m taking what’s mine.”

Buying GameStop shares suddenly made possible what Occupy Wall Street had failed to achieve, i.e., to punish Wall Street. Many Redditors understood what squeezing the hedge funds meant since they were familiar with online trading, having already used their part of the stimulus money to play the market, as suggested by influencers. In one of his videos, for example, Elijah Brasley had mentioned that he had spent the $600 stimulus to buy Tesla stock instead of buying clothes and shoes, or putting it in a savings account. But many other Redditors were new to the game of finance. They had recently joined the online community of WallStreetBets, and enjoyed its irreverent atmosphere, the chats interspersed with the inevitable memes, the vulgarities and swear words. They decided to follow what the others were doing and bought GameStop without understating what the next move would be. They were following the flow.

The GameStop financial battle invigorated the Redditors and energized the influencers. Messages of solidarity for GameStop flooded the online financial forums, and new subscribers flocked to join them. WallStreetBets subscribers surpassed five million. The same phenomenon took place on the Robinhood platform, where business became more and more hectic. On January 22, 2021, nearly 22 million shares were exchanged on Robinhood, up from 5 million on a typical day earlier in the month. As the price of the stock began to rise, the forum’s encouraging messages to hold on, not to sell, to make the price rise further, multiplied. The phrase “apes together strong,” from the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, became the most popular stock trading slang. And just as in the movie it symbolized the strong solidarity among the apes, in real life it encapsulated the bond among WallStreetBets members, the unity of the Redditors versus the greed of the hedge funds.

The GameStop revolt kept gaining momentum. On the wings of demand, shares recovered, surpassing the level at which most of the short sellers had bought them. Soon, the condition for the short squeeze that the Redditors had planned materialized. Stock prices and volumes reached a level at which, to limit their losses, hedge funds had to rush to the market and buy the stock of GameStop from the Redditors, who by now held a big chunk of it. This move, in turn, pushed prices even higher, further squeezing the short sellers. Because several of them had used borrowed money, a technique that amplifies gains as prices fall and multiplies losses as prices rise, the hedge funds were in for massive losses.

The Redditors’ uprising attracted the interest of the media, which began describing the dichotomy of us-against-them as the revenge of the commoners, as an uprising of young people in their pyjamas against the arrogant financial elite. But this characterization was not correct. As GameStop shares kept rising, the big firms in Wall Street like BlackRock and Fidelity Investments grabbed the opportunity to make money themselves; they joined the Redditors’ camp, buying the stock and squeezing their competitors. They put their phenomenal knowledge and resources behind the scheme, helping GameStop shares, which initially were worth just a few dollars, reach a peak of almost $500 per share. The company, which at the beginning of 2020 was worth $200 million, was now worth $28 billion. And a handful of Wall Street giants were making big money while weakening their hedge fund competitors, a win-win situation.

For Redditors, the assault on Wall Street had become something more than trading stocks or playing a video game. It was a justice crusade, a battle to prove right from wrong. Supporting each other, encouraging each other not to sell, using the expression “diamond hands” as if they were all on a team playing a video game, they entered flow. For each click to buy shares, they watched the price of the stock rise, which generated euphoria and motivated them to keep on clicking, to keep on buying. Trading became natural; the task and the self merged into one single, magical action. Many Redditors described their feeling as “ecstatic.” By January 28, 2022, the short sellers had lost $27 billion and five thousand American financial firms had been affected. The Redditors were winning.

It was at this point that the Redditors began expanding, targeting the stocks of other companies considered undervalued, such as AMC Theatres and Nokia, a move that alerted state institutions. The assault on Wall Street had become too big for the White House, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve to ignore. Top hedge funds, such as Melvin Capital, caught in a short squeeze, had to be bailed out, and billions of dollars started to move towards them from different investors. Money did not come cheap, but it came. And with money came something else: the financial establishment fought back using the weapon of regulation.

Blaming hate speech, Discord, the instant messaging platform, banned communication among users of the WallStreetBets Discord server.188 This move only increased the popularity of the Reddit forum, which jumped to eight million subscribers. Facebook also banned a Robinhood trading discussion group from its site. But the mortal blow came from Robinhood, when it banned the purchase of the stocks targeted by the Redditors, allowing only their sale. Naturally shares of GameStop and of the other stocks began declining. This generated an uproar. Many class-action lawsuits were launched, and Redditors voiced their outrage online. They accused Robinhood of market manipulation, of taking the side of the short sellers and Wall Street giants, some of which, like Citadel, were clients of the online platform.

Far from being a paladin of the people, Robinhood was very much part of the financial system. Its business model rested on selling data to the high frequency trading firms that processed them. Redditors did not know that Robinhood was able to waive the cost of transactions by diverting customer orders to these firms, which in turn used their algos to obtain small discounts, money they pocketed, to process them.189 The highest earnings for high frequency trading firms come from simple transactions, exactly those that the pyjama traders were conducting on online platforms. In exchange for the flow of orders they receive, high frequency trading firms pay Robinhood a percentage of each transaction. These earnings are minimal, sometimes a few cents per transaction, but multiplied by millions of trades they become relevant. In the year following the Redditors’ uprising, Robinhood pocketed $700 million from HFT.190

In an interview with Elon Musk, Vlad Tenev, one of the founders of Robinhood, justified the decision to halt the purchase of GameStop on its platform to comply with financial regulations. Due to the increased volume of activity, the National Securities Clearing Corporation (NSCC) had asked Robinhood to increase its security deposit by $3 billion, literally overnight.

had to obey and raise the funds among its investors. This was Tenev’s explanation and it was correct. Redditors were victims of the marketing illusion projected by Robinhood through slogans such as “finance for all.” The truth is that Robinhood was every bit as much a part of the system as the short sellers and the hedge funds. The Redditors had been sucked into the same structure without realizing it.

Though the price of GameStop stock kept falling, Redditors held on, hoping that short sellers would eventually have to buy their stocks. But the short squeeze had been crippled. The big short sellers had liquidated their positions, and some had been bailed out by other big players in the market. When activity on the Robinhood platform fully resumed, there were as many victims as winners on the battlefield. Few Redditors had sold their shares at peak value, and many ended up with bundles of stocks that were now worth much less than when they had bought them. Overall, however, Redditors were satisfied with their uprising. Even those who had not used the stimulus checks and had lost their own savings admitted to having enjoyed squeezing the hedge funds. Everyone had fun; for them the assault on Wall Street had been part of a very enjoyable video game.

The Redditors’ assault on Wall Street unveiled a thick web of interdependencies inside the world of financial and regulatory institutions. Whatever the true reason of Robinhood’s ban on buying GameStop, it happened because the system is structured in a way that some companies are deemed too big to fail—as was apparent in 2008. Very little has changed since the big crash. As is routine for paper money circulation, almost 23 percent of all US dollars in existence were printed in 2021, but only a tiny percentage reached regular people and an even smaller amount was used by the Redditors to bring justice to Wall Street. When the big hedge funds needed to be bailed out, however, there was no shortage of cash. Equally, the NSCC’s request to raise Robinhood deposits by $3 billion almost overnight was met without any problem.192 There is always plenty of cash for the system to stay afloat, providing you respect the rules of the game, but not for millennials and Generation Z to pay off student loans, or to buy a home and raise a family. And they are the future.

Very little has changed since 2008 also because the internet is not as free and democratic as the Cypherpunks had hoped it would be. The online network of the Redditors needed a means of communication they did not control, and so it was possible to shut down their voice by simply banning them from accessing the apps, the gateways to online communication.

The democratization of finance may still be a long way away. Perhaps we need to wait until the people take control of the internet; however, the Redditors’ short squeeze proves that the merging of social media and online trading can be a potent formula to wipe away some of the injustice the present system perpetrates. In May 2022, Melvin Capital sent a message to its clients saying that it was winding down its fund, possibly because of the billions of dollars of losses caused by the Redditors’ short squeeze.




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