It went up fast. And came down fast.
By the end of last week, you could buy a share of GameStop — successor to Philadelphia’s old Electronics Boutique digital-games store chain — for $64, a fat discount from the $300-plus you would have needed on Jan. 27.
Late last month, politicians from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., were bashing “Wall Street” and demanding the federal government investigate why small investors weren’t all able to buy more GameStop while it was worth hundreds of dollars a share — after rising from under $20 in early January.
It’s a new phenomenon that small investors can now gang up on professionals through social media and trading apps. But does that really make individual buyers more powerful — or just more easily influenced by bad ideas while app-based brokers pocket their fees? The reality is that full-time investment professionals profit at the expense of small investors by betting on longer games. On most days, David can’t topple Goliath. See the case of West Conshohocken’s Permit Capital below.
GameStop, a money-losing, Texas-based retail chain, was among several stocks that social-media promoters had been touting to investors who use RobinHood and other easy-trading smartphone-based broker apps.
The promoters’ theory: These stocks had been too eagerly shorted by Wall Street hedge fund investors, who had bet they were heading down. If enough buyers drove the price up, they would profit, and the hedge funds would lose.
So many new buyers crowded in, GameStock shares took off. The short-sellers faced big losses. On Jan. 28, RobinHood and some other brokers stopped taking bets. The party slowed down.
To populist politicians in both parties, frustrated small investors who couldn’t get in on the action fast enough suddenly looked like a new constituency of digitally-empowered Americans, with grievances worth exploiting.
It was an “almost-populist bottom-up rally” Ocasio Cortez said. “Normal people” were finally challenging “the elites,” Hawley said. Both demanded regulators investigate.
And so our top stock market regulators assembled this past Thursday with President Biden’s new Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chief before President Trump replaced her. They predictably urged calm — calling the market “resilient during high volatility” — but promised to have the Securities and Exchange Commission look into it.
GameStop shares, meanwhile, bounced above $70 on Friday. And to be sure, anyone who bought GameStop a month ago at $20 and had the good luck to sell when it was over $300 scored big.
But those who bought when it was in the hundreds, and didn’t exit quick, are now under water. Those turned away near the peak might thank RobinHood, instead of demanding an investigation.
All this action was certainly profitable — especially for longer-term GameStop shareholders. That included activist, professional investors who had been pushing the company to attempt the hard work of cutting costs and boosting profits: these investors now saw an unexpected opening to dump the stock, and get out with fat profits.
Those winners included Permit Capital Enterprise Fund LP, a West Conshohocken investment partnership. Last year Permit partner John Broderick signed a public letter — filed with the SEC — calling on other GameShop shareholders to join him in backing insurgent board candidates running against pro-management directors in elections for the GameStop board.
The activists pressured GameStop to close unprofitable stores, focus on the most profitable online sales, and squeeze more cash for investors.
» READ MORE: GameStop and the war on Wall Street | Opinion
Shareholders elected their two candidates over management’s favorites. Shares rose, in hopes the company would improve. But losses kept rising, too. So, the short-sellers moved in. And they in turn attracted the RobinHood buyers, like buzzards following wolves.
As of September, Permit held 2.5 million GameStop shares. Their value rose, from $50 million last fall, to near $1 billion on paper at the Jan. 28 peak. But by then Permit had already prudently sold more than half. The Wall Street Journal estimated the firm booked at least $100 million from the shares it unloaded as the price rose, maybe more.
There were local connections on both sides. Broderick’s fund is an affiliate of the Permit Capital LLC group, founded in 2002 by Richard Worley and Peter Morse, veterans of the former Miller, Anderson and Sherrerd, one of the Philadelphia region’s most successful investment managers before it was bought by Morgan Stanley in 1996.
GameStop was assembled by Barnes & Noble bookstores from regional game store chains. The largest was Electronics Boutique, in West Chester, and started in 1977 by entrepreneur James Kim and his wife Agnes Kim, who ran the original Electronics Boutique cart, at the old King of Prussia Plaza shopping center, in its pre-Neiman Marcus era.
Electronics Boutique grew to more than 2,000 EB stores around the world by 2005, when the Kims sold it to GameStop for $1.4 billion. GameStop shut EB’s Pennsylvania offices and warehouses and consolidated in Texas.
But the enlarged GameStop languished as internet sales and distribution overwhelmed store disk and cartridge sales.
With GameStop shares back towards normal, this looks less like a revolution than another sign that U.S. stock values are inflating and bear little connection to profits or jobs. Other disturbing signs include initial public stock offerings (IPOs) for biotech firms with no products, and “blank check” companies that promise only to buy unnamed businesses.
Maybe Secretary Yellen and the friends-of-the-people in Congress ought to spend more time thinking about that, instead of helping “normal people” more easily bet our scarce dollars on volatile stocks against market pros.