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Robinhood gives $250,000 to suicide prevention, vows platform changes after young trader’s death

June 22, 2020, 3:18 PM UTC

The popular trading app Robinhood announced it is making changes to its user interface following the death of Alex Kearns, a 20-year-old student who described a massive trading debt in a suicide note earlier this month.

In the note, Kearns reportedly railed about the ease by which Robinhood’s platform allows amateur investors to amass leverage, and cited a negative trading balance of over $730,000 he believed he had incurred.

The tragedy came to light after Kearns’s cousin-in-law, a Chicago financial analyst named Bill Brewster, tweeted about the death. Brewster also posted a Robinhood screenshot that shows the massive negative balance.

That display of negative $730,165.72 does not, however, appear to reflect Kearns’s actual debt. Instead, as Brewster and Forbes have noted, the figure likely reflected the fact that Kearns was engaged in a type of complicated options trading. What may have happened is that one part of his trade had settled, while the other leg of the trade had not yet done so, leading to a temporary negative cash balance that adjusts once the second trade goes through.

While Kearns’s death appears to be the result of a tragic misunderstanding, Brewster still blasted Robinhood for permitting amateur investors to wade unprepared into the complicated waters of derivative trading. Some on Twitter, meanwhile, faulted Robinhood for displaying “notional exposure” at all.

All of this has provided new fodder for critics of Robinhood’s interface, who allege the app engages in “gamification” to encourage a casino mentality among inexperienced investors. Those critics include Brewster, who decried the images of confetti the app displays when users make a trade.

Robinhood has declined to discuss the specifics of Kearns’s account, citing privacy concerns. But on Friday afternoon, the company’s co-CEOs put out a blog post, saying they are “personally devastated by this tragedy.”

The blog post also stated Robinhood was examining how it offers “option flows involving multi-leg exercise and assignment,” and that it was contemplating eligibility requirements for those who wished to use exotic trading strategies. The post added that Robinhood will make changes to its interface, including for how customer buying power is displayed.

The co-CEOs, Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, also announced Robinhood is making a $250,000 donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Kearns’s death comes amid a new surge in popularity for Robinhood, which has become the go-to stock-buying brand for millions of mostly millennial investors. In recent months, the company has seen an uptick in trading coinciding with the pandemic, and pulled in a massive $280 million Series F investment to fund its global expansion.

Robinhood’s rapid growth, which has disrupted the larger brokerage industry, has come with several high-profile stumbles. These include troubles with regulators over the botched rollout of a savings product, massive outages, and earlier glitches with its margin trading feature.

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