You have questions, I have the answers. Let’s talk through the GameStop short squeeze of January 2021.
1) Ok…What the Heck Happened?!
Let’s start with the bare basics of the GameStop short squeeze. We’ll get into the details later.
Some billionaire hedge funds made sophisticated bets. Nothing wrong with that.
Then a bunch of normal people on Reddit got together and said, “Hey…we can actually gang up on these billionaire hedge funds and beat them at their own game.”
So they did.
The normal Redditors executed their strategy and it worked. That in itself was dramatic and newsworthy. The Redditors’ bets made billions of dollars at the expense of the hedge funds.
But then the story took another turn when certain “establishment” institutions intentionally hampered the Redditors’ cause. It felt like “the man” was beating down “the underdog.”
Money, drama, anger, politics. That’s the basic overview. Let’s get into some details about this GameStop short squeeze.
2) Who are These Different Groups?
Let’s introduce all the characters from the GameStop short squeeze.
The two main billionaire hedge funds in this story are Melvin Capital and Citron Research. Some consider them antagonists. To me, they are simply players; neither good nor bad.
Melvin and Citron made big (and risky!) bets against the company GameStop. GameStop is a retail store that sells video games and related products. Melvin and Citron believe (possibly correctly) that GameStop’s long-term prospects are bad. We cover these bets in Q&A #3 and #4.
Reddit is an online message board. A group of Redditors called WallStreetBets wanted to take advantage of Melvin’s and Citron’s risky bets. One Redditor in particular—username DeepingF***ingValue—made a $40,000 bet against Melvin/Citron than turned into $40+ million.
Many of the WallStreetBets (or WSB) Redditors use an app called Robinhood to trade stocks for free. We’ll come back to Robinhood and their partner Citadel in Q&A #6.
3) What’s a Short?
The billionaire hedge funds’ “sophisticated bet” was to short GameStop stock. The mechanics of a short are straightforward.
If you think a company is good, you buy the stock for the long-term. You go long. If you think a company is bad, you can short it.
Let’s look at an example between me and Shorty. Shorty wants to short the Best Interest stock. Why? Because Shorty believes the Best Interest is going downhill and fast! Boo Shorty. Boooo!
I have 100 shares of the Best Interest stock (ticker symbol $BENF). In order to short the stock, Shorty and I enter into a contractual agreement.
Shorty will borrow my 100 shares of $BENF, currently worth $10 each. We agree on a timeline—say, 60 days. After that 60-day period, Shorty owes me my 100 shares back.
Over those 60 days, I’ll charge Shorty a small borrowing fee. That’s how I make my money in the agreement. Shorty also has to put down a deposit called a margin requirement, worth 150% of the deal. We need to make sure Shorty has the funds to cover this deal if it goes badly for him (we’ll talk about that in Q&A #4).
After our agreement begins, I give Shorty my shares. He immediately sells them for $10 each and gains $1000 in cash. And then Shorty waits.
In Shorty’s ideal situation, $BENF stock will drop. Let’s say it drops to $5. Shorty will then re-purchase the 100 shares at $5 each, costing him $500. He’ll return to 100 shares to be, and he’ll keep his $500 profit (minus the little fee he owes me).
Shorty shorted the Best Interest and he won.
P.S. Here’s a great article about the “Big Short”
But this story is about the GameStop short squeeze. Let’s talk about that.
4) What’s a Short Squeeze?
Shorty owes me my stock back after 60 days no matter what the price. He sold at $10, but he has to rebuy my stock after 60 days whether it’s at $5/share, $10/share, or $100/share.
That’s why shorting is risky. There’s no limit to how high a stock can go. Perhaps demand for $BENF goes through the roof while Shorty is shorting it. There’s no limit to how much money Shorty might lose.
And to make matters worse for Shorty, his act of re-purchasing the stock adds more demand to $BENF. Shorty himself will drive the price higher, costing him more money.
If the price gets high enough, I might margin call Shorty. Remember that deposit Shorty put down, called the margin requirement? It has to be 150% of the short bet itself (or $1500 for starters in our scenario).
But if the price of $BENF goes above 50% of the original price—or above $15—then Shorty’s original $1500 deposit no longer covers his potential losses. Shorty would have to put down more money. That’s a margin call.
Shorty’s short bet is now squeezing him out of money. The more the price of $BENF increases, the more Shorty will get squeezed. Even if he has faith that $BENF will eventually drop to $5, he might run out of money first from all the margin calls.
That’s a short squeeze.
The GameStop Short Squeeze
That’s what happened in the GameStop short squeeze.
In the GameStop short squeeze, Melvin and Citron (and possibly others) shorted GameStop’s stock. They borrowed GameStop, put up a margin requirement, immediately sold their shares, and waited for GameStop prices to drop (before eventually re-purchasing and returning the borrowed shares).
The WallStreetBets crew said, “If we all start buying tons of GameStop stock, we’ll drive the price way up! The billionaires will pay tons of margin calls. And then they’ll have to re-purchase the stocks—probably from us!—at huge prices. We’ll make money, and the billionaires will lose money!”
And that’s exactly what happened.
Enjoying this article? Subscribe below to get new articles emailed straight to your inbox
5) Is This Based on Fundamentals? On Emotion? Something Else?
Is the GameStop short squeeze based on business fundamentals? Absolutely not.
The stock went up 2000%, but the company didn’t get fundamentally better by 2000%. That’s easy.
But it’s not really based on emotion, either. Nobody involved believes that GameStop is truly a revolutionary company worthy of huge stock prices (like, for example, how many investors view Tesla).
Instead, the GameStop short squeeze is based purely on market mechanics. Think of shorts and short squeezing as a weird rule in the game of investing
Once in a while, people see an opportunity to take advantage of that rule.
6) What is Robinhood and Citadel? And Why Are They Involved?
The story could stop here and it would be dramatic. The GameStop short squeeze was making headlines before Robinhood and Citadel got involved.
Robinhood is a trading app that enables free stock trading. Robinhood’s claim is that they give stock market access to average Joe and Jane. You know—rob from the rich, give to the poor. You can buy stocks, bonds, funds, SPACs…lots of stuff.
The WallStreetBets crowd used Robinhood to purchase their shares of GameStop. And then, for “unknown” reasons, Robinhood halted trading on GameStop. They forbade users from purchasing more GameStop shares. Why would Robinhood do this? Why indeed.
Let’s switch gears to Citadel.
Citadel a hedge fund specializing in high-frequency trading. When average Joe makes a trade, Citadel reacts in the blink of an eye. They see the trade proposal, zip around the rest of the stock exchanges, make the same trade as average Joe, change the price by a fraction of a penny, and then execute average Joe’s trade.
Citadel keeps the fraction of a penny as profit. Joe barely notices the price change.
Citadel does this millions, billions, trillions of times a day. They make huge money.
Why is Robinhood free? Because they give Citadel access to their trade information. Ah ha! Citadel makes their fractional pennies from Robinhood traders.
And in other news, Citadel made a $2.75 billion investment into Melvin Capital early last week, before Robinhood shut down GameStop trading.
Wait a second…
Why People Are Pissed at Robinhood
I’m a simple index fund investor. This GameStop business doesn’t affect me at all.
But the stock market is a game. It has rules. I’ve chosen as boring of a strategy (index funds) as I can.
The hedge funds chose risky strategies. Still within the rules.
The WallStreetBets people chose a strategy to burn the hedge funds. Again, all within the rules.
And when Robinhood halted trading on Gamestop, they changed the rules.
You can call it cheating. Or welching. Or reneging.
Changing the rules after the money has been laid down on the table—that’s some bullsh**. That’s why everyone is upset at Robinhood. And they changed the rules in favor of the billionaire hedge funds. Extra bullsh**.
It’s like we’re all at a poker table. I’m sitting out this hand because it’s way too risky. But I just saw another player cheat. It’s all the same game, all the same rules…and that guy just cheated.
So even though I’m sitting this one out, I’m still upset at the cheating! Who says they won’t cheat me in the future?
7) Is This Legal? Is It Manipulation?
Is the GameStop short squeeze…ya know…legal?
This largely remains to be seen.
Some people are already taking Robinhood to court over their decision to shut down GameStop trading.
Others are suggesting that the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into WallStreetBets to see if their group effort meets the bar for illegal market manipulation.
For what it’s worth, many legal experts already suggest it would be impossible to prove wrongdoing by WallStreetBets. They’re a “mob of uninformed, unsophisticated retail traders.” Hardly evil geniuses.
8) What Are Options and Options Trading?
Many WallStreetBets users made huge amounts of money in the GameStop short squeeze through options and options trading. To explain options, I like to use a story about cookies.
You really like cookies. Right now, cookies cost $1.00.
But in your cookie-loving brain, you’re worried. You think the price of cookies might go way up to $2.00.
So you make a deal with the cookie baker.
You’ll give the baker an extra $1.00 right now. In exchange, the cookie seller makes a promise. He promises that for the next month, he’ll sell you up to ten cookies for $1.25 each.
If you’re right, and the price goes up to $2.00, your promise will “save” you 75 cents per cookie!!
If you want, you could turn right around and re-sell your $1.25 cookies for $2.00, and make an immediate profit.
If you’re wrong and the price stays at $1.00, then your promise expires at the end of 1 month and you’ve effectively lost the extra $1.00 you spent on the “promise.”
The promise = an options contract
Cookies = asset (like a stock)
This is an example of a call option. If the cookie dealer was thinking that cookies would decrease in price, he’d buy a put option instead. Example: an agreement to sell cookies at 80 cents, even if the market price were to drop lower than 80 cents.
Many WallStreetBets people bought call options prior to the GameStop short squeeze for pennies on the dollar. When the price started increasing, they executed their calls and purchased GameStop shares at a much lower-than-current stock price.
9) Wasn’t the GameStop Short Squeeze an Easy Way to Make Money?
Sure, some Redditors made millions of dollars or 50x’d their investments in less than a week.
But other people bought in far too late, after the stock had already jumped in price. They are left “holding the bag.”
I think the GameStop short squeeze was entrancing to watch. But I stayed away like the plague (too soon?).
I’m but a simple index fund investor.
10) Who Were the Winners and Losers?
How did all the characters fare from the GameStop short squeeze?
Melvin and Citron lost big. They are billion-dollar funds, and some estimates are that they lost more than half of their funds’ values before eventually closing out their positions.
Why couldn’t they just wait for the price to eventually fall?
Because they were getting margin called (see Q&A #4). They couldn’t risk the potential of the price going even higher.
Many Redditors won big, and on average they definitely won. I’m sure many also lost big. Most had no idea what they were doing and were following the crowd.
GameStop certainly won, at least in the short term. Presuming their company did the smart thing and sold some shares into the market, they likely raised a huge amount of capital that previously would’ve been impossible.
Robinhood lost—possibly forever—from the GameStop short squeeze. Their public image has been tarnished, perhaps irreparably.
Citadel…it’s hard to tell. I’m not terribly worried about their billions, though.
Time to Sell?
That’s it. Ten basic answers about the GameStop short squeeze. What a whirlwind.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, join 6000+ subscribers who read my 2-minute weekly email, where I send you links to the smartest financial content I find online every week.
Want to learn more about The Best Interest’s back story? Read here.
If you prefer to listen, check out The Best Interest Podcast.