Amanda Erickson, MJLST Staffer
It is likely that you have heard the video game chain, GameStop, in the news more frequently than normal. GameStop is a publicly traded company that is known for selling, trading, and purchasing gaming devices and accessories. Along with many other retailers during the COVID-19 pandemic, GameStop has been struggling. Not only did COVID-19 affect its operations, but the Internet beat the company’s outdated business model. Prior to January 2021, GameStop’s stock prices reflected the apparent new reality of gaming. In March 2015, GameStop’s closing price was around $40 a share, but at the beginning of January 2021, it was at $20 a share. With a downward trend like this, it might come as a shock to learn that on January 27, 2021, GameStop’s closing price was at $347.51 a share, with the stock briefly peaking at $483 on the following day.
This dramatic surge can be accredited to a large group of amateur traders on the Reddit forum, r/WallStreetBets, who promoted investments in the stock. This sudden surge forced large scale institutional investors, who originally bet against the stock through short positions, to buy the stock in order to hedge their positions. Short selling involves “borrowing” shares of a company, and quickly selling the borrowed shares into the market. The short seller hopes that these shares will fall in price, so that they can buy the shares back at a potentially lower price. If this happens, they can return the shares back that they “borrowed” and keep the difference as profit. The practice of short selling is controversial. Short selling can lead to stock price manipulation and can generate misinformation about a company, but it can also serve to check and balance the markets. The group on Reddit knew that short sellers had positions betting against GameStop and wanted to take advantage of these positions. This caused the stock price to soar when these short sellers had to repurchase their borrowed shares.
This historic scene intrigued many day traders to participate and place bets on GameStop, and other stocks that this Reddit group was promoting. Many chose to use Robinhood, a free online trading app, to make these trades. Robinhood introduced a radical business model in 2014 by offering consumers a platform that allowed them to trade with zero commissions, and ultimately changed the way the industry operated. That is until Robinhood issued a statement on January 28, 2021 announcing that “in light of recent volatility, we restricted transactions for certain securities,” including GameStop. Later that day, Robinhood issued another statement saying it would allow limited buying of those securities starting the next day. This came as a shock to many Robinhood users, because Robinhood’s mission is to “democratize finance for all.” These events exacerbated previous questions about the profitability model of Robinhood and ultimately left many users questioning Robinhood’s mission.
The first lawsuit was filed by a Robinhood user on January 28, 2021, alleging that Robinhood blocked its users from purchasing any of GameStop’s stock “in the midst of an unprecedented stock rise thereby depriv[ing] retail investors of the ability to invest in the open-market and manipulating the open market.” Robinhood is now facing over 30 lawsuits, with that number only rising. The chaos surrounding GameStop stock has caught lawmakers’ attention, and they are now calling for congressional action. On January 29, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a statement informing that it is “closely monitoring and evaluating the extreme price volatility of certain stocks’ trading prices” and expressed that it will “closely review actions taken by regulated entities that may disadvantage investors.” Robinhood issued another statement on January 29, 2021, stating they did not want to stop people from buying these stocks, but that they had to take these steps to conform with their regulatory capital requirements.
The frenzy has since calmed down but left many Americans with questions surrounding the legality of Robinhood’s actions. While it may seem like Robinhood went against everything the free market has to offer, legal experts disagree, and it all boils down to the contract. The Robinhood contract states “I understand Robinhood may at any time, in its sole discretion and without prior notice to Me, prohibit or restrict My ability to trade securities.” Just how broad is that discretion, though? The issue now is if Robinhood treated some users differently than others. Columbia Law School professor, Joshua Mitts, said, “when hedge funds are going to lose from a trading suspension, they don’t face any lockup like this, any suspension, any halt at the retail level, but when retail investors find themselves locked in, they find themselves unable to exit the trade.” This protective action by Robinhood directly contradicts the language in the Robinhood contract that states that the user agrees Robinhood does not “provide investment advice in connection with this Account.” The language in this contract may seem clear separately, but when examining Robinhood’s restrictions, it leaves room to question what constitutes advice when restricting retail investors’ trades.
Robinhood’s practices are now under scrutiny by retail investors who question the priority of the company. The current lawsuits against Robinhood could potentially impact how fintech companies are able to generate profits and what federal oversight they might have moving forward. This instance of confusion between retail investors and their platform choice points to the potential weaknesses in this new form of trading. While GameStop’s stock price may have declined since January 28, the events that unfolded will likely change the guidelines of retail investing in the future.