GameStop Stock Trading: 4 Things to Know

The Four Percent


The internet and stock market are aflame over GameStop, the video game retailer whose stock is suddenly the darling of day traders who are putting the squeeze on Wall Street’s big players.

The stakes are enormous: The surge in trading drove GameStop’s value up by more than $10 billion on Wednesday alone. On Thursday, as several trading platforms placed restrictions on the stock, the shares slid 44 percent.

GameStop — that feature of malls and shopping centers across the country — was worth about $2 billion in December. By Wednesday it was worth $24 billion, roughly the same as the meat giant Tyson and the fuel refiner Valero Energy. On paper, at least.

Exactly why has to do with a mix of traditional investing, rampant enthusiasm, stock-market mechanics and the belief that anyone with a Robinhood account can meme a fortune into existence.

This is the squeeze.

Shorts have to close their position — that is, buy up the shares they owe their brokers and return them. This demand kicks the stock higher, and a short who acts too late could be ruined.

Usually, these kinds of standoffs involve sophisticated Wall Street investors, for example when Bill Ackman squared off against two other billionaires — Daniel S. Loeb and Carl C. Icahn — over the dietary supplement maker Herbalife.

The amateurs started driving up the price.

Over the past year, armchair traders have surged into the market. Some smelled opportunity after stocks tumbled last spring, some were trying to scratch a gambling itch after sports leagues shut down, and for some it’s just a game — trying to ring up dollars instead of points. All this has been made easier by the free trades available through platforms like Robinhood and E-Trade.

Some of these enthusiastic amateurs are buying shares of GameStop, but many are placing their own options bets, on the opposite side of the shorts.

These bets involve contracts that give them the option to buy a stock at a certain price in the future. If the price rises, the trader can buy the stock at a bargain and sell it for a profit. (In practice, lots of traders just sell the options contract itself for a profit or loss instead of actually buying the shares, but this description suffices for our purposes.)

The brokers who sell the options contracts have to provide the shares if the trader wants to exercise the option. To mitigate their risk, they buy some of the shares they’d need. Normally, this small amount of demand doesn’t do much to the price.

But if enough traders bet big, the demand can push the stock up. If it goes high enough, the brokers who would be on the hook have to buy more shares, lest they get stuck having to buy a lot of expensive shares all at once.

That increases demand, which increases the stock’s price. Which means the brokers have to buy more shares, which means … you get the idea.

You can put some of the blame on Reddit’s Wall Street Bets forum, one of the weirder places on the internet. Wall Street Bets, or WSB, is where armchair traders gather to share memes, commiserate over losses and share more memes. But they also trade tips and analysis that can go on for pages.

GameStop’s shares started to rise late last year, after the founder of the pet-supply site Chewy bought a stake in the company and got a spot on its board. Slowly, the company gained the attention of WSB and traders who frequent the gamer-friendly social media service Discord.

The traders’ motivations vary widely. Some reason that GameStop’s shares are a good value. Others are just riding the wave. And others want to squeeze Melvin Capital, a hedge fund that was shorting GameStop. They’re the ones quoting Heath Ledger’s Joker character from “The Dark Knight”: “It’s not about the money; it’s about sending a message.”

But the aggressive maneuvers against the shorts aren’t necessarily limited to the amateurs. Wall Street’s big players know a good opportunity when they see it.

Nobody knows.

On Thursday, Robinhood, Interactive Brokers and others placed more restrictions on trading of GameStop and other stocks that have been caught up in the frenzy. Robinhood limited the ability of traders using its app to buy the call options, for example.

Those moves deflated the rally. GameStop slid after those were in place, reversing a gain of more than 30 percent earlier Thursday.



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