As recently as late 2020, bitcoin was $15,000 and still an outcast to the gentlemanly (or womanly) financial community. Today it is $58,000 and embraced by pin-stripped bankers globally. The crypto currencies have gone from the outhouse of respectability to the manor house. It’s been a quick transition. The current prime leading on the tawdry side of Wall Street is the retail trader, edging out SPACs. Retail turnover has soared from 5% of volume just a year ago to 30-35% currently. The RobinHooders’ dollars aren’t as large as those of the mutual funds and hedge funds, but individuals trade much more actively and are concentrated in remote corners where the institutions rarely venture. It is a chat-boarded sub-culture where the rules of the road were not written by Graham and Dodd or Warren Buffet.
It’s a world in which traditional financial metrics have little sway. The meme stocks like GameStop and the original meme, Hertz, defy any rules-based analysis and frighten most of the traditional self-described experts. Yet, the recent profits of the unwashed retail traders can’t be dismissed. The collective “they” have made a lot of money.
There has been talk of the Gen X share volume, the unconventional decision making, the syphoning of stimulus checks into stock speculation. However the quantitative side Greatest Story Never Told has not yet been disclosed.
It’s this: The individual speculator has rushed into the seamiest part of Wall Street: Penny stocks. Penny stocks are the dregs, the flotsam and jetsam of the market places. Most of the companies are unprofitable, many are in financial jeopardy, quite a few brokerage firms limit trading in them. Ours, for example, makes a person fill out a special form before buying one of them.
However, if in mid-November you had bought an equal dollar’s worth of every one of the 3,800+stocks then selling between 1 cent and 99 cents, how would you have done by the end of March, just 4 1/2 months later? The major indexes were up by a fair amount-Dow 12% up NASDAQ and S&P each around 9.5%. In contrast, the penny share portfolio was up by an astounding 141%, In other words, $10m in invested in the universe of penny stocks in November would have alchemistically become $24m at March’s end. That is March Madness; it’s 370% annualized. It’s almost unquestionably the biggest move of its kind in history. It is an awesome and frightening phenomenon.
Was there anything illegal, immoral or fattening about it? Not likely. Large and famous speculators have been accumulating allies, plotting together and seeking out co-investors for decades. Indeed, many of the most known names in finance historically were “pool operators”; think of Jay Gould, the Harriman’s, the Astors of days of yore. Jesse Livermore, the famous stock trader, made and lost several fortunes in these pool schemes, before committing suicide. It happens today in conversations between hedge fund managers, and even on social media.
And that’s the scary part. This speculative game will end badly. At the outset, individual investors will make money, next borrow money to make more, and finally lose it all, plus some. They will suffer the same leverage-laden fate as the Archegos billionaire did. Speculation, especially blind speculation, is enormously risky. Speculation fueled by margin is a trip to the poorhouse. Who’s to blame?
How does the serious investor participate and profit from the games the Robinhooders and concentrated position funds are playing? He or she doesn’t. Stay away. You don’t have to be sucked into the mindless maelstrom that will engulf the Reddit followers or took down the Hwang family office. Pick a portfolio platform and stay with it. Unless you have money to burn, don’t light the match of gaming with your wealth.
140% profit by buying the worst of the worst is not a healthy signal. It’s the third phase of the well known Minsky moment. It doesn’t have to be your moment.
George Ball is chief executive officer of Sanders Morris Harris in Houston