Until a few days ago, most people had no reason to think about GameStop, a retail chain that sells video games and accessories. If you have kids, you probably know the place, because your kids like to go there. Otherwise, the only reason to think about the place was to wonder how they managed to survive as a brick-and-mortar operation in a world dominated by on-line retailers. They exist as a reminder that humans still prefer in-person shopping, even if it comes at a premium.
That is the funny thing about the GameStop story. While other traditional retailers struggled to maintain margins, they are an exception. This is a company with ridiculously high margins. Even with a drop in sales due to the great reset launched by the managerial class this year, they maintained their margins. Whatever they are doing in their shops, people think it is worth a premium. Despite this, their stock was a dog, falling below $4 until the recent explosion.
It is the explosion in their share price that has them in the news. The share price as of the close of business yesterday was $347.51. The pre-market ask is $489.00 as these words are being typed. That number keeps going up, so it is not unreasonable to think that shares will be trading at or above $500 today. Everyone now wants a piece of the winningest stock since the dot-com bubble. If you had this company in your portfolio six months ago, you are a very happy investor.
Of course, this explosion in share price did not happen because everyone suddenly realized this was a great company. The story here is retail investors organizing on Reddit noticed that some big hedge funds were shorting the hell out of the stock, despite its depressed price. Shorting a stock is when you borrow shares of the stock and then sell them, hoping to buy them back at a lower price. You then return them to the lender, and you collect the difference.
These hedge funds took this a step further and borrowed shares that did not actually exist, which is called naked short selling. Basically, the center of the naked short sell is a promise to sell the shares at a price on a certain date. If the seller is unable to borrow those shares, then they must go into the market and buy them. If the price is below the promised price, no problem. If not or if the shares are simply not available to be purchased, then it is a very big problem.
This is where we are in the story of GameStop. At least one hedge fund was committed to delivering shares of this company at a few bucks per share, but now the shares are many times higher and becoming something close to unobtanium. The result is the hedge fund, Melvin Capital, has been wiped out. They had to liquidate all of their other holdings to cover their short position. Even with help from other hedge funds, they will file for bankruptcy next week.
By itself, this is an amusing story, but hardly big news. But, no one really knows if this is an isolated situation. The insiders were targeting a number of companies, hoping to jawbone down their share prices while they aggressively shorted those stocks. It is not unrealistic to think there are dozens of hedge funds out there working this grift, so this could be the tip of a much larger iceberg. The movie chain AMC Entertainment is seeing its stock follow GameStop for the same reasons.
Now, this may not sound very interesting, but even in today’s world of magical finance, math still matters. If you have to raise cash to cover your bad bet on a naked short sell, it means selling something to raise the cash. Hedge funds tend not to sell their furniture or expensive sports cars, so they sell their good holdings. Usually, they sell their best holdings, as they are the most liquid. If enough hedge funds are forced to liquidate their good holdings, those holdings will decline in price.
This is the great fear in these situations. No one knows how much exposure there is to this bad trade. That is why the general market will decline, as the robots that do almost all of the trading move into the safest of safe harbors. This, in turn, can result in selling of otherwise solid assets, simply because no one wants to be holding an asset in decline, especially in a declining market. Given the ridiculously inflated share values, this short squeeze could signal a very big correction.
It could also be a big nothing or it could mean the government comes in and makes everything right with bailouts or new rules to prevent further erosion. That really is the story here with GameStop. This revolt of small retail investors against this hedge fund is about the larger issue. The marketplace has been perverted by insiders with special access to both market makers and market regulators. The financial markets are no longer tethered to economic reality. It is just a giant bust out.
This is why this event is being compared to Gamergate. Like the populist revolts we have seen all over the culture the last ten years, this organized attack by small investors is about a larger issue. The institutions we are supposed to rely upon to regulate our lives have been corrupted by managerial insiders. Just as the marketplace of ideas is now manipulated by thugs and lunatics on behalf of the oligarchs, the financial markets have become a grift operated by wealthy insiders.
What this means, of course, is that the insiders getting hurt in this will go to their colleagues in the ruling class and have the insurgents crushed. These people will be pushed off public forums, have their accounts closed by the trading companies and some will probably be arrested on made up charges. In a society where mocking the rulers on Twitter could get you ten years in prison, anything is possible. The ruling class will not be mocked or defied.
On the other hand, it is great example of how to resist managerial tyrants. These people will not be talked out of their corruption. They have no scruples, so they cannot be shamed into doing the right thing. They have real power, so they cannot be removed from their positions. The only course is to drive up the cost for them. Throwing sand in the gears whenever possible drives up the cost of rule. Eventually, the managerial state becomes the naked short sell and has to be liquidated.
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