In a blowout comedy for the ages, finance pirates take it up the clacker.
By Matt Taibbi and cross-posted from his substack platform.
In the fall of 2008, America’s wealthiest companies were in a pickle. Short-selling hedge funds, smelling blood as the global economy cratered, loaded up with bets against finance stocks, pouring downward pressure on teetering, hyper-leveraged firms like Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. The free-market purists at the banks begged the government to stop the music, and when the S.E.C. complied with a ban on financial short sales, conventional wisdom let out a cheer.
At the time, poor beleaguered banks were victims, while hedge funds betting them down as the economy circled the drain were seen as antisocial monsters. “They are like looters after a hurricane,” seethed Andrew Cuomo, then-Attorney General of New York State, who “promised to intensify investigations into short selling abuses.” Senator John McCain, in the home stretch of his eventual landslide loss to Barack Obama, added that S.E.C. chairman Christopher Cox had “betrayed the public’s trust” by allowing “speculators and hedge funds” to “turn our markets into a casino.”
Fast forward thirteen years. The day-trading followers of a two-million-subscriber Reddit forum called “wallstreetbets” somewhat randomly decide to keep short-sellers from laying waste to a brick-and-mortar retail video game company called GameStop, betting it up in defiance of the Street. Worth just $6 four months ago, the stock went from $18.36 on the afternoon of the Capitol riot, to $43.03 on the 21st two weeks later, to $147.98 this past Tuesday the 26th, to an incredible $347.51 at the close of the next day, January 27th.
The rally sent crushing losses at short-selling hedge funds like Melvin Capital, which was forced to close out its position at a cost of nearly $3 billion. Just like 2008, down-bettors got smashed, only this time, there were no quotes from economists celebrating the “good news” that shorts had to cover. Instead, polite society was united in its horror at the spectacle of amateur gamblers doing to hotshot finance professionals what those market pros routinely do to everyone else. If you’ve ever seen Animal House, you understand the sentiment:https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/UVgbFttx-6I?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0
The press conveyed panic and moral disgust. “I didn’t realize it was this cultlike,” said short-seller Andrew Left of Citron Research, without irony denouncing the campaign against firms like his as “just a get rich quick scheme.” Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin said the Redditor campaign had “no basis in reality,” while Dr. Michael Burry, the hedge funder whose bets against subprime mortgages were lionized in “The Big Short,” called the amateur squeeze “unnatural, insane, and dangerous.”
The episode prompted calls to regulate Reddit and, finally, halt action on the disputed stocks. As I write this, word has come out that platforms like Robinhood and TD Ameritrade are curbing trading in GameStop and several other companies, including Nokia and AMC Entertainment holdings.
Meaning: just like 2008, trading was shut down to save the hides of erstwhile high priests of “creative destruction.” Also just like 2008, there are calls for the government to investigate the people deemed responsible for unapproved market losses…