There was a time when investors would shun the likes of GameStop, a fading retail business with little hope of a turnaround. But thanks to the exuberance of retail investors, shares of the video game outfit are going gangbusters—and producing a mass headache for short-sellers, who are down over $6 billion this year betting against GameStop.
By mid-Monday morning, shares of GameStop soared as high as $132, which is nearly quadruple the price of a week ago, and a more than 600% increase from mid-January. The latest spike comes after frantic trading on Friday that led exchanges to temporarily halt sales of the stock. Update: by noon ET, shares in GME had fallen abruptly to around $80, and trading has been chaotic:
The recents pops in GameStop shares have led many short sellers—who had bet the price would fall—to buy shares in order to exit their positions, which resulted in further demand that has pushed the stock upwards. The result has been a so-called short squeeze.
While short squeezes are not uncommon, they are ordinarily triggered by an event such as a rosy earnings forecast that forces the market to reconsider the company’s underlying value.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with GameStop. The company did undergo a board shakeup earlier this month in response to an investors’ complaint that it “overprioritizes its brick-and-mortar footprint and stumbles around the online ecosystem.” But there is no guarantee the shakeup will pay off or that its stagnant earnings will turn around anytime soon.
Instead, the GameStop short squeeze appears largely driven by retail investors whose faith appears irrational at best, nihilistic at worst. On platforms like Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets, the amateur stock-buyers egg each other on, often invoking the popular millennial acronyms “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and (you only live once).
Many retail investors are also buying options contracts to bet the stock will soar still higher, adding yet more momentum to GameStop’s price.
On r/wallstreetbets, which describes itself as “Like 4Chan [a site dedicated to memes and trolling] found a Bloomberg terminal,” the top of the forum dedicated to GameStop looks like this (with expletive obscured):
The rush to buy shares of GameStop is hardly the first such rally driven by retail investors piling into an obscure or troubled stock. In 2020, YOLO-driven investing spurred short-lived pops in bankrupt firms like Hertz and JCPenney. And this year, retail buyers are also gobbling up shares of AMC Cinemas, another business whose underlying fundamentals look dire.
The motivations of retail buyers, who now make up a much larger proportion of the market thanks to platforms like Robinhood, are not always clear. While their goal is, of course, to make money, many also seem to delight in thumbing their nose at Wall Street. Comments on social media also suggest some GameStop buyers view the stock as a lottery ticket to escape the drudgery of their daily lives.
As for the GameStop short sellers, it’s unclear when the short squeeze will end and allow their pain to turn to gain. According to Ihor Dusaniwsky, a managing director at S3 Partners, the short sellers are down nearly $3 billion on Monday’s trading alone—part of a $6.12 billion loss this year.
Dusaniwsky also suggested that the content between bearish short sellers and bullish retail traders is turning into a battle of attrition.
“GME is a unique situation on the short-side, we are seeing a short-squeeze on older shorts who have incurred massive mark-to-market losses on their positions but are seeing new shorts coming in … in hopes of an eventual pullback from this stratospheric stock price move,” said Dusaniwsky in an email to Fortune. “Much like the revolutionary war, the first line of troops goes down in a rain of musket fire, but is replaced by the troops next in line.”
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