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The meme stock revolution is over. Goldman Sachs says U.S. retail investors have sold most of what they bought over the last two years

June 1, 2022, 4:54 PM UTC

Retail investors flooded into so-called meme stocks like AMC and GameStop during the pandemic hoping to net quick profits in a market that just seemed to keep on soaring.

In 2022, with interest rates climbing and the stock market struggling, it’s a different story.

Goldman Sachs analysts, led by David J. Kostin, revealed in a Tuesday research note that retail investors have sold most of their U.S. stock purchases from the last two years. And over the last seven weeks alone, $26 billion has flowed out of U.S. equity ETFs and mutual funds, which are often traded by retail investors. 

How it started

Rising stock prices, stimulus checks, and near-zero interest rates led investors to rush into the stock market like never before during the pandemic.

In fact, U.S. investors sank more than $1 trillion into stocks in 2021 alone, the Financial Times reported in December. That’s more than the prior 20 years combined, and three times more than the previous annual record.

On top of that, the “democratization” of investing due to the expansion of low-cost trading applications like Robinhood, and the birth of large online communities of traders on forums like Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets, spawned a meme stock revolution in 2021.

Meme stocks are equities that gain a cultlike following on social media platforms. Typically, these stocks are targeted by retail traders due to their high short interest, which means that a large number of short-sellers—traders who bet a stock’s price will fall by borrowing shares and then selling them at market price hoping to buy the shares back at a later date for less—have shorted the stock, making it susceptible to something called a short-squeeze.

A short-squeeze happens when short-sellers are forced to buy shares (i.e., cover their shorts) in order to exit their positions as a stock rises, pushing the stock even higher.

The meme stock era propelled the share prices of formerly unloved, and mostly unprofitable, names like GameStop to new heights in the first few months of 2021. The video game retailer eventually saw its shares jump over 2000% to a short-lived record high of $483 by Jan. 28.

Leading up to that record, the number of unique accounts trading GameStop on a given day increased from fewer than 10,000 at the beginning of the year to nearly 900,000 by the end of January, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission report.

How it’s going

Now, though, with a slew of macroeconomic headwinds from the war in Ukraine to sky-high inflation hurting stock market returns, the retail crowd has all but abandoned its meme stock heroes. 

Shares of GameStop are down over 50% in the past year to around $120, and AMC has fared even worse, with shares plummeting nearly 60% to $13 over the same period.

Goldman Sachs says the rise of retail investors and the meme stock movement was largely a result of a narrative they call TINA, or “there is no alternative.” 

The idea is that because interest rates were so low, savings accounts, government bonds, and other interest-rate-sensitive investing alternatives just didn’t pay enough to be worthy of investment by the retail crowd. As a result, there was record investment into risk assets like tech stocks, meme stocks, and cryptocurrencies as investors hunted for stronger returns.

“Since 2020, fiscal stimulus, near-zero interest rates, and record-high equity allocations supported TINA … But investors are now facing rising interest rates and recession concerns,” the analysts wrote, adding that there has been a sharp reversal of the TINA trend over the past few months.

It’s now the age of TARA, or “there are reasonable alternatives,” Goldman says, and that’s reversing households’ aggressive stock purchases, which have significantly contributed to the recent stock market selloff.
It appears that despite AMC’s recent rebound due to the success of Top Gun: Maverick, the speculative investing of the meme stock era is mostly over.

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