WASHINGTON — During his last regulatory stint in Washington, Gary Gensler focused on reining in big Wall Street players that he believed were manipulating markets and assuming huge financial positions to the detriment of other investors.
If confirmed to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr. Gensler will have to confront an entirely new spin on that same game: Thousands of small investors who have banded together to amass giant stakes in GameStop and other companies with the aim of toppling big Wall Street players.
The frenzy around GameStop, whose stock has soared 1,700 percent in the last month, presents a huge challenge for Mr. Gensler and the S.E.C., which will have to reckon with a fundamental shift in the capital markets as a new breed of investor begins trading stocks in unconventional ways and for unconventional reasons.
Rather than snapping up a company’s shares because of a belief in that firm’s growth potential, the investors who piled into GameStop, AMC, BlackBerry and others did so largely to see how far they could drive up the price. Their motivation in many cases had less to do with making money than with causing steep financial losses for big hedge funds that were on the other side of that trade and had bet that the price of GameStop and other firms would fall.
Their ability to cause such wild market volatility was enabled by new financial apps — like Robinhood — that encourage investors to trade frequently and allow them to buy risky financial products like options as easily as they purchase a latte. Options — which are essentially contracts that give the investor the option to buy a stock at a certain price in the future — were what helped put the “short squeeze” on the hedge funds that had shorted the company’s stock.
“What’s going on with GameStop has almost nothing to do with GameStop as a company,” said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America. “When you see the markets essentially turned into a video game or turned into a casino, that actually has some pretty serious repercussions for the way we use the markets to fund our economy.”
GameStop vs. Wall Street
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