A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business’ Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here.
An army of amateur traders looking to run up the price of struggling stocks has jolted Wall Street and forced the world to pay attention.
But as investors brace for more volatility, an important question needs to be answered: How have big banks and other financial titans been trading the action?
The dominant narrative of the past week has been of a motley crew of day traders coordinating on platforms like Reddit and Discord to buy shares of distressed companies such as GameStop (GME) and AMC Entertainment (AMC), squeezing hedge funds who had bet that prices would fall.
Yet Wall Street is notorious for trying to capitalize on market volatility —and it’s unlikely to have sat back and let Reddit have all the fun.
“We know what the Redditors were doing,” Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform, told me. “What was the rest of Wall Street doing? I don’t think we know that yet.”
It’s clear that the rush into GameStop shares did cause trouble for some hedge funds like Melvin Capital, which lost 53% of its investments in January after it became a primary target for traders on social media.
Other funds, however, could have seen the momentum and decided to buy GameStop stock, or made the most of big price swings using high-frequency trading algorithms. That could have exacerbated some of the recent price moves.
“What really caused the price spike is I think an open question,” Goldstein said. “We know part of the story was Reddit. But I don’t think we know if that’s the full story.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a prominent Wall Street critic, made this point over the weekend when calling for regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission to step up their involvement.
“We actually don’t know who all the players are in all this — whether there’s big money on both sides,” Warren told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday. “That’s why we need an SEC investigation.”
Those who think that Wall Street likely played a role point out that GameStop shares — which have jumped 1,625% in the past month — rose 68% on Friday even when some retail traders were restricted from buying new shares on trading apps like Robinhood.
According to data from Citadel Securities, which processes over 40% of US retail stock trading volume, retail traders were net sellers of GameStop shares last Tuesday and Wednesday. The stock still rose.
Big picture: The potential involvement of big institutional players in the GameStop saga complicates the story. And unknowns on this front pose a big risk for the small investors sticking with GameStop, which closed Friday’s session at $325 per share.
“The mania and bubble in GameStop is going to pop and there are going to be lots and lots of retail investors who lost a fortune,” said Dennis Kelleher, CEO of financial reform group Better Markets. “The question isn’t if that’s going to happen — the only question is when that’s going to happen.”
Reddit mania has spread to the metals market
The Reddit crowd isn’t just looking at stocks anymore.
Precious metals are now in the mix, too. Silver futures surged as much as 13% Monday, touching five-month highs. That follows a 6% rally last week.
Why silver? People on WallStreetBets, the Reddit forum that catalyzed many of the recent market moves, set their sights the iShares Silver Trust ETF, which trades under the ticker “SLV,” last week. Some have suggested it could be a way to hurt big banks they believe are artificially suppressing prices, my CNN Business colleague Matt Egan reports.
“SLV will destroy the biggest banks, not just some little hedge funds,” one WallStreetBets user wrote.
The Winklevoss twins, who famously sued Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and were early backers of Bitcoin, have also signaled their support.
“The #silversqueeze is a rage against the machine,” Tyler Winklevoss tweeted Sunday.
Leading retail sites posted warnings over the weekend that heavy demand was causing strain.
“Due to unprecedented demand on physical silver products, we are unable to accept any additional orders on a large number of products, until global markets open Sunday evening,” APMEX, which bills itself as the world’s largest online retailer of precious metals, wrote in a notice on its website.
But Ryan Fitzmaurice, a commodities strategist at Rabobank, notes that the silver market may not be set up for a GameStop-style rush. Silver futures have been strong of late, backed by support from hedge funds and other institutional investors who expect prices to keep rising.
“I am not sure how well this new Reddit trading strategy will fare in futures markets and especially the notoriously volatile commodity markets,” Fitzmaurice said.
Tesla’s dirty secret: Car sales aren’t driving profits
Tesla (TSLA) just had its first profitable year. But it didn’t earn that distinction by selling cars, my CNN Business colleague Chris Isidore reports.
Eleven states require automakers sell a certain percentage of zero-emissions vehicles by 2025. If they can’t, the automakers have to buy regulatory credits from competitors that meet those requirements — like Tesla, which exclusively sells electric cars.
It’s a lucrative business for Tesla, bringing in $3.3 billion over the course of the last five years. Nearly half of that came in 2020 alone.
Why it matters: Without that income, Tesla would actually have posted a net loss in 2020. And long term, it can’t count on these credits as a reliable stream of revenue.
“These guys are losing money selling cars. They’re making money selling credits. And the credits are going away,” said Gordon Johnson of GLJ Research, one of the biggest bears on Tesla shares.
Investor insight: Tesla’s stock, long a favorite among everyday investors, actually fell more than 6% last week as attention focused on GameStop. It’s still up 583% in the past year, as bulls bet on future growth. However, the credits story is a reminder that the company’s stock performance is mostly about long-term expectations for auto sales — not necessarily where it’s at now.
The ISM Manufacturing Index posts at 10 a.m. ET.