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The Big Short…Squeeze

By Saleh Jamodien, 16 February 2021

The recent market volatility during the GameStop saga mirrors the events in the well-known film adaptation of the book “The Big Short”.

The film chronicled the lives of a few sophisticated investors who predicted and profited off the collapse of the housing and credit bubble in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis by taking a short position on the housing market. In this instance however, it was the retail investors who were in the driving seat while Wall Street’s hedge fund managers were on the back foot.

Setting The Scene

Citron Research, an activist short-selling firm and renowned for their bearish research reports, announced that they had taken a short position on GameStop, citing that the company was on a terminal decline and had significantly struggled with revenue during the pandemic. When one takes a long position on a stock, they are essentially stating that the company is undervalued by the market and would profit by buying the stock in the hopes that the stock price rises at which point they would sell. When one takes a short position on a stock, however, they are taking a stance that the company is overvalued by the market and is not fundamentally sound. Therefore, a short seller would borrow shares from a broker and sell them to the market with the intention of buying them back at a lower price, at which point they will return the shares to the broker plus some prior agreed-upon fee and profit from the difference.

In simple terms, imagine you borrow a comic book - currently worth R100 - from a friend, as you believe that the value of the comic book will decline. You then sell it to another person for R100. A month later the value of that same comic book is now R10 at which point you buy it back. You then return the comic book to your friend plus a fee of, let’s assume R20, and you make a profit of R70.

A short squeeze, however, is if a short-seller’s belief that the stock price will drop does not play in their favour and the price actually appreciates. The short seller would have to buy it back at a higher price and thus incur a loss.

Wall Street vs Reddit

GameStop is a bricks-and-mortar retailer of video games in the US. The company has been struggling due to the popularity of online gaming in the growing digital industry, which has shifted to purchasing games online instead of physical game disks. There has also been the migration to retail shopping online. Revenues have been further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Therefore the company was of significant short interest to hedge fund managers on Wall Street.

Figure 1: Top 10 Most Shorted Stocks in January 2021

Figure 1: Top 10 Most Shorted Stocks in January 2021
Source: Factset (2 February 2021)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of approximately 4.4 million retail investors on a Reddit forum group called WallStreetBets decided to band together and purchase GameStop shares in an effort to “stick it to the man”. In a David vs Goliath-esque move, the WallStreetBets mob of retail investors drove the stock price of GameStop from a low of approximately $18 per share in early January to a high of $347 per share at market close on 27 January 2021 – an increase of 1800%! Disregarding fundamental analysis and replacing it with rocket ship emojis, memes and phrases such as “hold the line”, “going to the moon” and “stonks go up”. For the uninitiated, these phrases are the WallStreetBets’ equivalent to a “buy” recommendation on an analyst’s report.

Figure 2: GameStop Stock Price

Figure 2: GameStop Stock Price

The GameStop frenzy spilled over to another heavily shorted stock, AMC Entertainment. With the momentum gained during the successful pump of GameStop’s stock price, the WallStreetBets group – now standing at 8.9 million subscribers – targeted AMC Entertainment, driving the stock price up 900%, from a low of $2 to a high of $20 per share.

Figure 3: AMC Entertainment Stock Price

Figure 3: AMC Entertainment Stock Price

Melvin Capital, a hedge fund that started the year with $13 billion assets under management, was severely affected by the GameStop rally. The hedge fund lost 53% of its value after it had taken a significant short position in GameStop when the stock price was at $5 per share. Wall Street titans Citadel and Point72 Asset Management have since pledged $2.75 billion to help bail Melvin Capital out of their short position.

Contrarians at The Gate

Fuelling the GameStop rally was the news that Ryan Cohen, founder of the successful ecommerce business, Chewy, and The Big Short investor himself, Michael Burry, had taken a 12% and 2.4% stake in the company, respectively. Cohen and Burry both believe in a potential turnaround strategy that could help GameStop transition its current business model of being a bricks-and-mortar retailer to a competitive e-commerce player in the gaming industry niche market. Ryan Cohen had proven his ability to drive the transition successfully from bricks-and-mortar to e-commerce when he established Chewy.

Furthermore, a survey conducted by Bespoke Intel in February 2020, showed that despite the growing demand for digitalisation, the company still had a 30% market share for new video game purchases.

Figure 4: Loss of Physical Market Share

Figure 4: Loss of Physical Market Share
Source: Bespoke Intel Survey Research, February 2020

Although turnaround strategies can be challenging, there is certainly a case for GameStop’s upside potential, perhaps just more conservative than 1800% in one month.

Steal from The Rich?

In an effort to regulate the surge and volatility in stock prices of GameStop and AMC Entertainment, trading platforms such as Robinhood, Interactive Brokers and Trading 212 halted trading and subsequently imposed restrictions on those volatile stocks. The platforms allowed for only sale of the stocks and no further purchases which caused the stock price to start dropping as some investors cashed out their profits. The stock price of GameStop dropped down to $126 after these limitations were imposed. The most well-known of the three platforms, Robinhood, came under significant scrutiny from the public with retail investors threatening to file class action lawsuits against the trading platform. US politicians, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ted Cruz also expressed their disapproval of Robinhood’s decision to restrict retail investors from purchasing stocks, stating that it was unacceptable and called for the House Financial Services Committee to investigate if necessary.

Ironically, in the story of Robin Hood, the heroic outlaw’s famous motto is “steal from the rich and give to the poor”, however, the opposite is true for this instance as the trading platform’s limitations only aided the hedge funds to recover on their short positions.

Looking Ahead

It appears as though the Reddit-fuelled frenzy has officially died down and the prices of these volatile stocks have decreased significantly since then, with GameStop currently trading at $48 per share. There were many lessons learned during this saga, no matter which side of the spectrum you sat on. For the retail investors, the importance of diversification and taking undue risk would have come to the fore as investors who got in early and got out at the right moment made a lot of money, while those who entered late or held too long suffered significant losses. For the hedge fund managers, perhaps covering their short positions in future would be more reasonable from a risk management perspective, rather than taking a naked short position on a stock.

There are no heroes or villains in this scenario as both positions could be justified. On the side of Wall Street’s hedge fund managers, taking a short position in GameStop seems fundamentally justifiable as it puts downward pressure on an overvalued stock price to reach its lower intrinsic value. This is a useful economic function to stagger the formation of a growth bubble in the financial industry, which was the catalyst to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. On the side of Reddit’s WallStreetBets retail investors, taking a long position, because you believe in the upside potential of a turnaround strategy, or as a speculative trade or as a way of “sticking it to the man”, could also be viewed as justified.

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