Melvin Capital, the hedge fund that dug itself into a hole during the GameStop saga, extended its first-quarter losses to 49%, according to a Bloomberg report.
The firm, founded by portfolio manager Gabe Plotkin, saw a 53% decline in January, reversed some of that loss by gaining 22% in February, but slid another 7% in March, Bloomberg said, citing sources.
Melvin was among a handful of short-sellers that got torched by the Wall Street Bets army that bid up GameStop’s shares, leading to massive losses for those that wagered bearish bets against the video-game retailer.
The fund closed its short position against GameStop on January 27. It started out this year with $12.5 billion in assets under management, but ended January with about $8 billion. Steve Cohen’s Point 72 and Ken Griffin’s Citadel injected a $2.75 billion investment in Melvin to support its battle against the Reddit army.
Plotkin racked up about $860 million through 2020 after his firm returned 53%, but January’s deep decline left him with an estimated personal loss of $460 million, Bloomberg reported.
Plotkin was grilled before a congressional panel in February, where he defended his short position and said it was never part of an effort to “artificially depress, or manipulate downward, the price of a stock.”
A spokesperson for Melvin didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
GameStop said Tuesday that its stock is -and continues to be – “extremely volatile.”
Moreover, that volatility is “due to numerous circumstances beyond our control.”
The statement in a regulatory filing is the first such statement from GameStop leadership on its ongoing stock price fiasco that’s seen its shares rise as much as 1600% in a matter of weeks.
Under the “risk factors” section of the annual report, the company’s stock volatility is listed as the primary risk factor related to the company’s stock. It specifically cites “short squeezes” as a primary reason for that volatility.
“The market price of our Class A Common Stock has been extremely volatile and may continue to be volatile due to numerous circumstances beyond our control,” GameStop said in the filing.
GameStop’s stock value has been explosively unpredictable since mid-January.
Between January 15 and January 27, the price leapt from around $35 to just shy of $350. It’s seen similarly huge dropoffs, but months later it’s still in the $180 range.
The reason, of course, is the much discussed “short squeeze” from a large group of individual investors driving up the company’s stock price in an effort to defeat short sellers betting against the stock. It’s been a major topic of discussion for the past several months for loads of people in media and on Wall Street – except for GameStop leadership.
The company has more or less stayed mum for weeks, and even declined to discuss it on its quarterly earnings call this past week. Instead company leadership focused on the company’s ongoing “transformation” led by Chewy cofounder and former CEO Ryan Cohen.
Since Cohen joined the company’s board in January, taking charge of a “strategic” committee soon after, the company made a string of high-profile hires from the likes of Amazon and Chewy.
It is unclear what Cohen’s specific plans are the future of the company, but he broadly outlined plans in an open letter to the company’s board in late 2020.
GameStop, “needs to evolve into a technology company that delights gamers and delivers exceptional digital experiences,” Cohen wrote in the letter, “not remain a video game retailer that overprioritizes its brick-and-mortar footprint and stumbles around the online ecosystem.”
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SPAC IPOs have been all the rage since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the trend has only accelerated in 2021. Now short-sellers are beginning to take notice.
The group of investors has tripled bearish bets against SPACs to $2.7 billion, from $724 million at the start of the year, according to data from S3 Partners first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Short-sellers have a lot of SPACs to sift through, given that the $166 billion raised by SPACs in the first quarter of 2021 exceeds all of the SPAC deals formed in 2020. But high-profile short-sellers seem to be having no problem finding their targets.
Muddy Water’s Carson Block released a report earlier this month on XL Fleet, a recent SPAC IPO that, according to Block, misled investors on an inflated revenue backlog for its retrofitted hybrid vehicles. The share price of XL Fleet has yet to recover from Block’s short report.
Short-seller firm Hindenburg Research, which rose to fame last year after it released a damaging short-report on Nikola, has also had success targeting SPAC firms. Hindenburg released a report on Lordstown Motors last week, alleging that the SPAC-merged company has “no revenue and no sellable product.” Shares of Lordstown dipped more than 20% and have yet to recover from the decline.
Even the SPACs led by billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya have been unable to avoid the scrutiny of short-sellers. Palihapitiya’s recent Social Capital SPAC merger with fintech firm SoFi has more than 20% of its share float sold short, according to data from Finviz.
Besides the underlying business concerns raised by short-sellers for SPACs, underlying trends in interest rates could be helping their bets against SPAC mergers. A majority of the companies going public via SPAC merger are not profitable, and don’t forecast profitability until years down the road.
The dearth of profits hasn’t jived well with investors as interest rates have risen over the past few months, sparking a rotation out of high-tech growth companies and into cyclical stocks in the energy and financial sectors.
Now, Congress and US regulators are reviewing what happened to see if there are any vulnerabilities in the stock market that need to be addressed. Regulators are considering rule changes on everything from options trading, to short-selling and gamification practices by investing apps like Robinhood.
On Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren shared the responses to her previous letters that asked the SEC and FINRA how they planned to respond to the volatility in GameStop. The responses revealed a list of issues the regulators are now examining.
The SEC said it is evaluating if there are any gaps in its market manipulation rules. The agency also said it will “seriously consider” increasing the requirements for brokers that offer options trading, and increasing disclosure requirements for brokers that deal with payment for order flow and for hedge funds and investors that engage in short-selling.
FINRA, meanwhile, said its looking into the gamification of the stock market by investing apps like Robinhood, and whether its current rules adequately address the risks presented by these practices. Both FINRA and the SEC said they are still investigating if there was any wrongdoing related to the meteoric rise of GameStop earlier this year.
“The GameStop controversy revealed how the Wall Street game is rigged in favor of big hedge funds and giant corporations – and how this hurts individual investors and the economy. I’m going to keep fighting for answers, a level set of rules, and a transparent and open market for everyone,” Warren said.
Gabe Plotkin’s hedge fund Melvin Capital gained a chunky 22% in February, according to reports, but the investment firm remained in a deep hole after being battered during the GameStop saga.
The 22% gain, reported by numerous outlets, well outstripped the 2.6% rise in the S&P 500 across the month.
Yet Melvin Capital lost 53% in January after hemorrhaging money on its bet against video-game store GameStop, which skyrocketed when amateur traders organizing themselves on social media website Reddit got behind the stock.
The $8 billion fund needs to produce gains of 75% before earlier clients break even, Bloomberg reported. That is a tall task, even for a fund that posted average yearly returns of around 30% from 2014 to 2020.
However, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into the fund from investors who are confident in Plotkin’s abilities, Bloomberg said. Insider has contacted a media spokesperson for Melvin Capital for comment.
Melvin’s February gains are in part due to tweaks to Plotkin’s trading strategy. In testimony to Congress on the GameStop saga in February, Plotkin said he had “learned” from the episode. “I am taking steps to protect our investors from anything like this happening in the future,” he said.
For example, Plotkin has stopped using exchange-traded puts – contracts that allow investors to make money if a stock falls – which show up on regulatory filings and allowed his bets to be singled out by day-traders, Bloomberg reported.
The fund took an injection of $2.75 billion in cash from hedge funds Citadel and Point72, the latter run by Plotkin’s mentor Steve Cohen, as the day-trading frenzy rocked the firm.
He also said in his Congressional testimony he would avoid situations where lots of investors are betting heavily against a stock.
Crowded shorts are vulnerable to the types of so-called short squeezes that battered Melvin in January. Squeezes happen when short-sellers are forced to buy back the stock to cover their positions, driving the stock price upwards.
In late January 2021, shares of a company called GameStop stock, which had been trading around $2.57 per share, suddenly shot up, eventually as high as $500 – when users of the Reddit website subgroup Wall Street Bets began buying up shares.
This was bad news for a lot of other investors, known as short-sellers, who had bet the stock would keep falling. Unlike most investors, who want their stocks to appreciate, short-sellers make money when stock prices go down and lose money when they go up.
So when GameStop started gaining, these short-sellers were caught in what’s called a short squeeze. They had borrowed to support their pessimistic investment, and they now had to pay it back – by buying GameStop shares at the higher prices. Or else, hang on – and risk losing even more money.
A short squeeze is a stock market phenomenon, something that happens to investors and traders who have acted on the assumption that an asset (a stock, usually) is going to fall – and it rises instead. Here’s how it happens.
What is a short squeeze?
To understand a short squeeze, it helps to understand short selling, aka shorting, a sophisticated investment strategy in which traders or investors sell stocks they don’t actually own, in hopes of buying them back later for less money.
It works like this: A short-seller borrows shares (usually from their broker) they think are due for a fall or to keep on falling, and sells them on the open market at the current price. When the stock’s price drops, as the short-seller was betting it would, they then buy the shares back for the new, lower amount. They return the borrowed shares to their stockbroker, keeping the difference in price as profit. In the interim, they’re charged margin interest on the shorted shares until they pay them back.
The entire strategy hinges on the bearish view that the stock is going to drop in value. But what if it goes up instead? That’s when a short squeeze happens.
When a stock rises sharply and suddenly, short-sellers scramble en masse to buy shares to cover their position (their loan from their broker). Each of these buy transactions drives the stock even higher, “squeezing” the short-seller even more. They have to keep covering their positions or get out totally – at a loss.
How does a short squeeze happen?
Here is how a short squeeze scenario unfolds:
You identify a stock you believe is overvalued, and take a short position: borrowing and selling shares at today’s high price in anticipation the price will go down and you will be able to buy replacement shares at a much lower price.
Instead, something happens causing the price of the stock to start going up. That “something” can be the company issuing a favorable earnings report, some sort of favorable news for its industry – or simply many other investors buying the stock (as happened with GameStop).
You realize you are unable to buy the stock back at a low price. Instead of sinking, it’s climbing – and it exceeds the price you bought it for. At this point, you must either buy replacement shares at a higher price and pay back your broker at a loss, or buy even more shares than you need – in hopes that selling them for profit will help cover your losses.
All this increased buying causes the stock to keep going up, forcing even more short-sellers like yourself into a tighter vise. You have the same choices as above, only the stakes keep mounting, and so do your potential losses.
Protecting yourself against a short squeeze
There are specific actions you can take to try to protect yourself against a short squeeze or to at least alleviate its grip.
Place stop-loss or buy-limit orders on your short positions to curb the damage. For example, if you short a stock at $50 per share, put in a buy-limit order at a certain percentage (5%, 10% or whatever your comfort level is) above that amount. If the shares rise to that price, it’ll automatically trigger a purchase, closing out your position.
Hedge your short position with a long position – that is, buy the stock (or an option to buy the stock) to take advantage of rising prices. Yes, you’re betting against yourself, in a way, but at least you lessen the damages of the losses and benefit from the price appreciation.
Predicting a short squeeze
Short squeezes are notorious for descending quickly and unpredictably. Still, there are signs a short squeeze may be coming:
Substantial amount of buying pressure. If you see a sudden uptick in the overall number of shares bought, this could be a warning sign of a pending short squeeze.
High short interest of 20% or above. “Short interest” is the percentage of the total number of outstanding shares held by short-sellers. A high short interest percentage means a large number of all a stock’s outstanding shares are being sold short. The higher the percentage, the more likely a short squeeze may be building.
High Short Interest ratio (SIR) or days to cover above 10. SIR is a comparison of short interest to average daily trading volume. It represents the theoretical number of days, given average trading volume, short-sellers would need to exit their positions. The higher this number, the more likely a short squeeze is coming. Both short interest and SIR are on stock quote and screener websites such as FinViz.
Relative Strength Index (RSI) below 30. RSI indicates overbought or oversold conditions in the market on a scale of 0 to 100. A stock with a low RSI means it’s oversold – that is, trading at a very low price – and possibly due to increase; a high RSI indicates the stock is extremely overbought – trading at a high price – and possibly due to drop. Any RSI below 30 signals an imminent price rise, which could lead to a short squeeze. A company’s online stock listing usually includes its RSI, often under its Indicators section.
The financial takeaway
A short squeeze can result when a stock – especially one that had been declining in price – suddenly goes up for whatever reason.
This puts short-sellers, who bet the stock would drop or to keep on dropping, in a bind. They sold shares they didn’t actually own, and now, to cover their positions – repay the stock they borrowed -they have to buy increasingly expensive shares. Each of these buy transactions drives the stock even higher, forcing more short-sellers to spend more or get out at a loss. They call it a squeeze but it becomes more like a vicious cycle.
There are indicators to predict a short squeeze, and ways to protect yourself against one. But overall, a short squeeze is one of the facts of life for a short-seller – and a reminder of the risks that sophisticated trading strategies like short selling carry.
The US stock market is witnessing the biggest “short squeeze” in 25 years, forcing hedge funds to withdraw from their positions on stocks at the fastest rate since 2009, according to Goldman Sachs.
Last month saw GameStop shares rise more than 1,700%, “squeezing” hedge funds and others who had “shorted” the stock, costing them billions of dollars. A short position is a bet that a share price will fall.
Goldman Sachs analysts this weekend shed some light on the situation in a note. “The past 25 years have witnessed a number of sharp short squeezes in the US equity market, but none as extreme as has occurred recently,” they said.
The equity analysts said a basket of the most-shorted US stocks has rallied 98% in the last three months. Estimates by data provider Ortex on Friday showed that short-sellers were sitting on losses of around $19 billion just on GameStop in 2021 so far.
Hedge funds and short-sellers who had made losing bets were forced to withdraw from the market rapidly at the fastest pace since 2009, in what is known as “de-grossing”.
They had to buy shares in companies such as GameStop and movie theater chain AMC to close their short positions, and sell other stocks to cover their losses.
“This week represented the largest active hedge fund de-grossing since February 2009,” Goldman analysts including David Kostin and Ben Snider said. “Funds in their coverage sold long positions and covered shorts in every sector.”
Hello and welcome to Insider Investing. I’m Joe Ciolli, and I’m here to guide you through what’s been happening in markets, as well as what to expect in the coming weeks. This week is packed with all the GameStop and Reddit content you could ever ask for.
If you’re reading this, that means you managed to make it through the stock market’s most absurb week in recent memory. You’ll always remember where you were when Reddit day traders banded together and pumped 90’s nostalgia stocks like GameStop to the moon – an unprecedented uprising that sent ripples through every layer of the financial system.
The story starts, of course, with the traders themselves, who conduct their business on r/WallStreetBets subreddit. They threw the exact perfect mix of market savvy, anti-establishment sentiment, and sheer will into a blender and came out with a destabilizing cocktail that left established Wall Streeters scrambling clean up the mess.
The central concept was relatively simple: focus on buying heavily shorted stocks, which will hopefully squeeze those positions until they’re forced to close, pushing the stock up even further. Ideally that inspires people that feel left out to pile in. Rinse, repeat. That these companies – which included Nokia, BlackBerry, and BB Liquidating (formerly known as Blockbuster) – were nostalgic, past-their-prime businesses was an added bonus to the Reddit crowd, who are never ones to pass up a chance at irony.
But the phenomenon goes far deeper than that. Underlying the memes and the hubris rests an anti-establishment streak. For a portion of the WallStreetBets crowd, this undertaking isn’t just about making money. It’s about making Old Wall Street pay, and the group isn’t exactly being coy about that fact. “It seems Occupy Wall Street had the wrong approach,” the official WallStreetBets Twitter account posted on January 26.
So what’s the damage look like on Wall Street so far? Arguably the biggest casualty has been Melvin Capital, which held a short position on GameStop that’s left them down 53% year-to-date – performance so bad that investing titans Steve Cohen and Ken Griffin have had to bail them out.
Then there’s also the matter of the preferred trading platform for the Reddit army: Robinhood. The online brokerage had a week for the ages after restricting further buying of GameStop, then backtracking after backlash from everyone from AOC to Chamath Palihapitiya. There have also been reports that Robinhood was forced to draw on bank credit lines amid the madness. How this impacts the company’s quest to go public this year will be a story to watch in the coming weeks.
So where do we go from here? One thing to watch is how hedge funds react. They were already shedding equity exposure in the early days of the GameStop craze, and it’s possible the market dislocations exploited by Redditors will cause them to retreat further.
Many other questions remain. Who else was caught short and ultimately doomed by WallStreetBets? Who else raked in big returns like Silver Lake? When will the so-called meme stocks come plunging back down to earth? And will the stock market ever be the same? Keep watching this space to find out the answer to those, plus many more.
Join us Tuesday, February 2, 2021 at 1:00 p.m ET as deputy editor Joe Ciolli, markets and economy reporter Ben Winck, and senior investing reporter Vicky Huang discuss the GameStop phenomenon, the influence of WallStreetBets, and how the Reddit-fueled trade might end.
Join Insider on Wednesday, February 3 at 2:30 p.m. ET as Insider’s chief finance correspondent Dakin Campbell moderates a panel featuring Kim Posnett, Goldman Sachs partner and Internet investment banking chief, Greg Rodgers, a Latham & Watkins LLP attorney and direct-listings expert, and Mitchell Green, a venture capitalist at Lead Edge Capital who backed Uber, Spotify, Asana, and Alibaba.
These IPO experts will discuss what you can expect for the year ahead and how the recent changes have dramatically altered the calculus for startup entrepreneurs. They will also take reader questions.
Wall Street hedge funds are scrambling, and it’s all because of a online investing forum that has more than 4 million members who self-describe themselves as “degenerates.”
Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum has surged in popularity after retail investors within the group successfully staged a gravity-defying short-squeeze in GameStop at the expense of hedge funds that were betting the physical video-game retailer was on its last legs.
A short-squeeze occurs when investors who are betting against the stock are forced to close out their position by buying the stock, further adding fuel to the fire.
As of Thursday morning, GameStop had a year-to-date gain of more than 2,400%. The rally in GameStop crushed Melvin Capital, a roughly $12 billion hedge fund that has suffered a more than 30% decline due to its short position in GameStop.
“They [retail investors] are proving to be quite capable of mounting some successful ‘value capture’ against Wall Street institutional investors,” Fundstrat’s Tom Lee said in a note on Monday, adding that “large size does not always win.”
But the influence of WallStreetBets on stock moves could wane in the future as systematic funds “adjust” their models to incorporate this new source of volatility, Lee said.
And it’s not only quant funds that could put a dent in the influence of 4 million Reddit traders, it’s also trading platforms.
On Thursday, Robinhood restricted buy trades in a handful of stocks that have seen epic short squeezes and have been targeted by the Reddit group, including GameStop, AMC Entertainment, and Nokia, among others.
Now the question is, according to Lee: “Will their strategies endure?”
Short-sellers have taken a hit now that GameStop shares have topped $330, in what analysts have dubbed an irrational rally stoked by the Reddit group “Wall Street Bets.”
When the market operates rationally, investors have the option to short a company’s stock. In the case of GameStop, Melvin Capital and Citron Research were among the list of short sellers, and they’ve lost their bet, by a lot. The more than 2 million members of the subReddit group have been bidding up GameStop shares in the past weeks, causing the stock to skyrocket more than 1,200% since mid-January.
To short a stock means the investor is betting the price of that company’s shares will decline. (In a normal bet, which is called going long, investors purchase a stock with the hopes of it increasing).
In shorting a stock, an investor borrows shares from a lender, let’s say at $10 per share. The investor then takes the borrowed shares and sells them for that same price. Once the stock goes down, to let’s say $1 per share, the investor buys the shares back and returns them to the lender, pocketing $9 per share.
“Let’s say you short XYZ company at $100, and the next day it goes to $10. You take $10 out of your pocket and buy back the stock and give it to the guy you borrowed it from. And you have $90 in your pocket,” Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush, told Insider. Pachter added that there’s the added cost of paying the interest on borrowing the stock, though if an investor only holds a short position for a month, the interest would be negligible.
But sometimes, like in the case of GameStop, the shorts get “squeezed” when the shares go up, said Telsey analyst Joe Feldman, who maintains the Street-high target price of $33 for GameStop. That means short sellers have to buy back the stock at a higher price. So if the shares were borrowed when the stock was $10, and now the stock is $20, the investor loses $10 per share.
GameStop short-sellers Melvin Capital and Citron Research lost a lot when the stock started spiking, said Pachter. They’ve both since closed out of their short positions. CNBC reported that hedge fund Melvin Capital ate a huge loss on Tuesday when it closed its short position. Citron managing partner Andrew Left said that the firm’s position was covered when GameStop traded at about $90 at “a loss of 100%.”
“There’s a point where the shorts say, ‘This is crazy I’m getting out,'” Pachter said.
The problem with shorting the stock at the higher price now, betting it will go back to normal levels, is that analysts are unsure where the irrational share increase will stop. “What if it goes to infinity?” Pachter said.
Joost van Dreunen, who teaches at the New York University Stern School of Business and has an expertise in gaming, said the current valuation of GameStop is “totally disconnected from reality.” GameStop’s record highs prior to this rally were in 2007 and 2013 when the Nintendo Wii and Switch launched, respectively, and pushed the stock to about $60.
“That was their absolute high watermark, and they haven’t been able to recover it since,” van Dreunen said. “The current situation is just post-modern financial drama totally void of reality.”
“Fundamentally, nothing has changed for the company,” Feldman said. “If anything the fourth quarter was probably a little disappointing.”