Supports: Hubbard/O’Brien, Chapter 8, Firms, the Stock Market, and Corporate Governance; Macroeconomics Chapter 6; Essentials of Economics Chapter 6; Money, Banking, and the Financial System, Chapter 6.
We’ve seen that a firm’s stock price should represent the best estimates of investors as to how profitable the firm will be in the future. How, then, can we explain the following graph of the price of shares of GameStop, the retail chain that primarily sells video game cartridges and video game systems? The graph shows the price of the stock from December 1, 2020 through February 9, 2021. If the main reason the price of a stock changes is that investors have become more or less optimistic about the profitability of the firm, is it plausible that opinions on GameStop’s profitability changed so much in such a short period of time?.
Sometimes investors do abruptly change their minds about the profitability of a firm but typically this happens when the firm’s profitability is heavily dependent on the success of a single product. For instance, the price of the stock a biotech firm might soar as investors believe that a new drug therapy the firm is developing will succeed and then the price of the stock might crash when the drug is unable to gain regulatory approval. But it wasn’t news about its business that was driving the price of GameStop’s stock from $15 per share during December 2020 to a high of $347 per share on January 27, 2021 and then down to $49 per share on February 9.
To understand these prices swings, first we need to take into account that not all people buying stock do so because they are making long-term investments to accumulate funds to purchase a house, pay for their children’s educations, or for their retirement. Some people who buy stock are speculators who hope to profit by buying and selling stock during a short period—perhaps as short as a few minutes or less. The availability of online stock trading apps, such as Robinhood, that don’t charge commissions for buying and selling stock, and online stock discussion groups on sites like Reddit, have made it easier for some individual investors to become day traders, frequently buying and selling stocks in the hopes of making a short-term profit.
Many day traders engage in momentum investing, which means they buy stocks that have increasing prices and sell stocks that have falling prices, ignoring other aspects of the firm’s situation, including the firm’s likely future profitability. Momentum investing is an example of what economists call noise trading, or buying and selling stocks on the basis of factors not directly related to a firm’s profitability. Noise trading can result in a bubble in a firm’s stock, which means that the price rises above the fundamental value of the stock as indicated by the firm’s profitability. Once a bubble begins, a speculator may buy a stock to resell it quickly for a profit, even if the speculator knows that the price is greater than the stock’s fundamental value. Some economists explain a bubble in the price of a stock by the greater fool theory: An investor is not a fool to buy an overvalued stock as long as there’s a greater fool willing to buy it later for a still higher price.
Although the factors mentioned played a role in explaining the volatility in GameStop’s stock price, there was another important factor that involved hedge funds and short selling. Hedge funds are similar to mutual funds in that they use money from savers to make investments. But unlike mutual funds, by federal regulation only wealthy individuals or institutional investors such as pension funds or university endowment funds are allowed to invest in hedge funds. Hedge funds frequently engage in short selling, which means that when they identify a firm whose stock they consider to be overvalued, they borrow shares of the firm’s stock from a broker or dealer and sell them in the stock market, planning to make a profit by buying the shares back after their prices have fallen.
In early 2021, several large hedge funds were shorting GameStop’s stock believing that the market for video game cassettes would continue to decline as more gamers switched to downloading games. Some people in online forums—notably the WallStreetBets forum on Reddit—dedicated to discussing investing strategies argued that if enough day traders bought GameStop’s stock they could make money through a short squeeze. A short squeeze happens when a heavily shorted stock increases in price. The speculators who shorted the stock may then have to buy back the stock to avoid large losses or having to pay very high fees to dealers who had loaned them the shares they were shorting. As the short sellers buy stock, the price of the stock is bid up further, earning a profit for day traders who had bought the stock in anticipation of the short squeeze. One MIT graduate student made a profit of more than $200,000 on a $500 investment in GameStop stock. Some hedge funds that had been shorting GameStop lost billions of dollars.
Some of the day traders involved saw this episode as one of David defeating Goliath because the people executing the short squeeze were primarily young with moderate incomes whereas the people running the hedge funds taking substantial losses in the short squeeze were older with high incomes. The reality was more complex because as the price of GameStop stock declined from $347 on to $54 on February 4, some day traders who bought the stock after its price had already substantially risen lost money. And all the winners from the short squeeze weren’t day traders; some were hedge funds. For instance, by early February, the hedge fund Senvest Management had earned $700 million from its trading in GameStop’s stock.
Economists had differing opinions about whether the GameStop episode had a wider significance for understanding how the stock market works or for how it was likely to work in the future. Some economists and investment professionals argued that what happened with GameStop’s stock price was not very different from previous episodes in which speculators buying and selling a stock will for a time cause increased volatility in the stock’s price. In the long run, they believe that stock prices return to their fundamental values. Other economists and investors thought that the increased number of day traders combined with the availability of no-commission stock buying and selling meant that stock prices might be entering a new period of increased volatility. They noted that similar, if less spectacular, price swings had happened at the same time in other stocks such as AMC, the movie theater chain, and Express, the clothing store chain. An article on bloomberg.com quoted one analyst as saying, “We’ve made gambling on the stock market cheaper than gambling on sports and gambling in Vegas.”
Federal regulators, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, were evaluating what had happened and whether they needed to revise existing government regulations of financial markets.
Sources: Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Sarah Ponczek, “Robinhood Crisis Reveals Hidden Costs in Zero-Fee Trading Model,” bloomberg.com, February 3, 2021; Gunjan Banerji, Juliet Chung, and Caitlin McCabe, “GameStop Mania Reveals Power Shift on Wall Street—and the Pros Are Reeling,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2021; Gregory Zuckerman, “For One GameStop Trader, the Wild Ride Was Almost as Good as the Enormous Payoff,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2021; Juliet Chung, “Wall Street Hedge Funds Stung by Market Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2021; and Juliet Chung, “This Hedge Fund Made $700 Million on GameStop,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2021.
- During the same week that the price of GameStop’s stock was soaring to a record high, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted the following: “Analysts expect GameStop to post its fourth consecutive annual decline in revenue in its latest fiscal year amid declines in its core operations [of selling video game cartridges and video game consoles in retail stores].” Don’t stock prices reflect the expected profitability of the firms that issue the stock? If so, why in January 2021 was the price of GameStop’s stock greatly increasing when it seemed unlikely that the firm would become more profitable in the future?
Source: Sarah E. Needleman, “GameStop and AMC’s Stocks Are on a Tear, but Their Businesses Aren’t,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2021
2. In early 2021, as the stock price of GameStop was soaring, a columnist in the New York Times advised that: “A better option [than buying stock in GameStop] would be salting away money in dull, well-diversified stock and bond portfolios, these days preferably in low-cost index funds.”
a. What does the columnist mean by “salting money away”?
b. are index funds and why might they be considered dull when compared to investing in an individual stock like GameStop?
c. Why would the columnist consider investing in an index mutual fund to be a better option than investing money in an individual stock like GameStop?
Source: Jeff Sommer, “How to Keep Your Cool in the GameStop Market,” New York Times, January 29, 2021.
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