GameStop report from SEC sheds new light on meme stock mania—conspiracies and all

October 18, 2021, 8:30 PM UTC

Wall Street’s top regulator has doused the frenetic fervor of speculation about what drove wild movements in GameStop’s stock earlier this year with what is sure to be an underwhelming conclusion for many: The markets worked as designed.

For nine months, Reddit-loving investors, market-making executives, and industry lobbyists have been waiting on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to release its detailed findings of what actually occurred in late January when GameStop, along with dozens of other now-anointed meme stocks, whipsawed in price. 

It was an event unlike anything investors and traders had seen before, one that gave way to talk of short squeezes and gamma squeezes, as well as conspiracy theories about collusion among some of the biggest names in finance. The share price of the struggling video game retailer had climbed some 2,700% with individual investors jumping in. Shorts were on the defensive. And retail brokerages had restricted activity in names like GameStop for a brief period of time. Something nefarious had to be going on, skeptics alleged. 

And yet, however anomalous the meme stocks’ movements may have been, the SEC is now signaling that what happened in January was the result of the market—at least in its current form—working properly.

“Underneath the memes are actual companies, with employees, customers, and plans to invest in the future. Those who bought GameStop became co-owners of a company through a system of mutual trust and participation that sustains our economy,” the SEC staff wrote in its long-awaited GameStop report. “People may disagree about the prospects of GameStop and other meme stocks, but those disagreements are what should lead to price discovery rather than disruptions.”

The SEC’s GameStop report, released Monday, does not conclude what, if anything, the regulator should be pursuing in terms of new rules, nor does it explain whether its work had yielded any new enforcement investigation. Instead, the 45-page document provides an unprecedented look at the market mechanics that sent GameStop shares soaring in January, while also attempting to address some of the flood of questions that followed soon after.

Did the shorts get squeezed?

GameStop began to trend upward in 2020 after the stock became subject to growing interest from individual investors who included dentists, college students, and everyone in between speculating on its prospects through social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit. The SEC reported that the number of unique accounts trading the stock had swelled from 10,000 to almost 900,000 in just a few weeks.

Long a short target for hedge funds like Melvin Capital, GameStop’s stock had struggled for years as its critics saw the company as a lingering vestige of a time when people bought video games in person. Going as far back as 2012, short interest in the stock had hit 50% of shares outstanding on multiple occasions, according to the SEC. And the pandemic seemed to only open the door for more GameStop bears, as short interest in the stock hovered around 100% throughout 2020 and into early 2021. 

Then, alongside increased media attention around Chewy’s Ryan Cohen joining the GameStop board in the middle of January, the stock began to take off. In total, between an intraday low on Jan. 8 and an intraday high on Jan. 28, GameStop rose about 2,700% to $483. And even more quickly, the stock then plunged, dropping more than 86% by the end of the first week of February.

What had happened was individual investors, many of whom banded together on platforms like Reddit’s WallStreetBets channel, saw an opportunity to squeeze the shorts and become the Davids to Wall Street’s Goliaths.

It only worked in part, though, the SEC says.

For periods of time, short-sellers covering their positions “likely contributed to increases in GME’s price,” the regulator wrote in its report. However, it was not the only force behind GameStop shares, as such buying activity only represented a small part of the overall volumes of trades buying the stock. 

“The underlying motivation of such buy volume cannot be determined; perhaps it was motivated by the desire to maintain a short squeeze,” the SEC wrote. “Whether driven by a desire to squeeze short-sellers and thus to profit from the resultant rise in price, or by belief in the fundamentals of GameStop, it was the positive sentiment, not the buying-to-cover, that sustained the weeks-long price appreciation of GameStop stock.”

What about the gamma squeeze?

The SEC was clearer in its findings about a gamma squeeze in GameStop shares, saying that it did not find evidence of one. 

A gamma squeeze, like a short squeeze, focuses on creating upward pressure on a share price by flooding the market with call options that market makers then need to hedge by purchasing the underlying stock. 

And though the SEC staff did find that individual investors were using options on GameStop shares at a staggering rate in late January (volumes went from $58.5 million on Jan. 21 to $2.4 billion on Jan. 27), the rise mostly came from put options that give the holder the ability to sell shares in the underlying stock at a predetermined price by a certain period. 

Why couldn’t I buy GameStop?

Individual investors in the months since the heights of the GameStop saga have continually pointed back to one conspiracy theory more than any other that was brewed up in the wake of the brokerage industry’s varying moves to restrict buying activity in certain meme stocks, including GameStop. Specifically, Robinhood’s decision, though it was far from the only brokerage to limit such activity.

The allegation is that Citadel, the hedge fund giant led by Ken Griffin, was short GameStop like Melvin was, and that, to avoid suffering horrid losses, the company had directed Citadel Securities, the market-making entity that is run as a separate business but founded and owned by Griffin, to tell Robinhood to shut it down. Robinhood, in fear of ruffling the feathers of one of its major sources of revenue, promptly responded in turn by doing just that, so the theory goes.

Executives from both companies have continually denied the claims since, with Griffin and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev even testifying to as much earlier this year.

No concrete evidence has been brought forth to solidify the allegations, and that now includes the SEC report.

The regulator detailed how many broker-dealers’ restrictions were the likely result of margin calls from their clearinghouses to account for the staggering volatility that was being seen in GameStop shares, among others, a justification that Robinhood and Citadel have pointed to before, time and time again.

“I want to be perfectly clear: We had no role in Robinhood’s decision to limit trading in GameStop or any other of the meme stocks,” Griffin testified in February.

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