The first rule of r/WallStreetBets is YOLO.
There is no second rule.
This isn’t the land of enlightenment, it’s the borough slum of loss porn. I’m here for the goods: Show me the screenshot where your well-earned $30k investment in weekly Tesla puts bottomed out to a measly $30 because you didn’t trust Papa Musk to deliver 500,000 cars by year’s end. Because when you lose, I don’t feel so bad about my own losses. And spare us your sob story: Nobody wants to hear about your impending eviction, or how you’re drowning under $100,000 in student loans and medical debt, or how you (like me) operate a struggling small business pushed face-down in the red by a raging pandemic. If we weren’t all losers, self-described or evidenced by myriad financial failures, we wouldn’t be in this swamp of a stock forum hunting down the next ten-bagger.
No, show me the gains and losses, the booms and busts, because we’re all here for the same reason—hoping to roll a double-six. Whether it comes through due diligence or a good old-fashioned pump-and-dump frenzy, we don’t care—tell us why you think this ticker symbol is gonna rocket us to the moon, and we’ll decide if we’re in or out.
I never imagined our small world would get major press, or raise the ire of politicians, or cause billionaires to melt down on live television. I never thought my posts about certain stocks would land me on the front page of the subreddit, or that major newspapers and podcasters would be reaching out to me and others, anonymously, to get our takes on the David and Goliath story that was cluttering up the news cycle only a week after a new president was sworn into office.
But here we are.
I stumbled upon r/WallStreetBets after years of poking around the more conservative stock forums on Reddit. These sleepy little subreddits—r/Stocks, r/StockMarket, r/Investing—were havens of level-headedness, frugality, and caution, where everyday investors plotted investments according to some shared sense of how the market actually worked. Warren Buffett was their cosmic dignitary, and a 4 percent yearly gain on their investments a prudent retirement plan. I’d spend hours reading ample research provided by these amateur sleuths rummaging through 10-K financials with the hope of stumbling across the next Shopify.
These types would never shell out money based on a mad president’s tweet or the offbeat musings of a CEO smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s show. They were interested in fundamentals: quarterly earnings, price-earnings ratios, dividends, market share. Boring old investment data with a proven track record of slight upward trajectory—if you listened close, you could almost hear the scraggly old Mary Poppins banker singing about compounding tuppence.
It was a dry, effective way to hunt growth stocks. These people weren’t degenerate gamblers, not like those people over on r/WallStreetBets. They certainly weren’t fanboys of Martin Shkreli, a moderator of WSB and pharma bro who infamously raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by more than 5,000 percent and later went to prison for securities fraud. These were not wannabe day traders but reasoned, seasoned investors.
And for a long time, I shared that dream of the long game, the Boomer Boomerang, where you get back what you put in, plus adventure and gains, because in the back of my mind, always, was the financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession.
In 2008, I was recently married and renting a room in a cramped apartment in New York. I had two additional roommates, a living room the size of a bathroom, and student loans the size of a small mortgage. I’d just started my own business and worked through the night in nearby coffee shops, hoping to make ends meet. I grew up under the care of a single mother living off food stamps, so I knew I could live in poverty, but dreamed of something more. I began reading up about stocks, tuned in to Jim Cramer on Mad Money, and plotted my entry point into the market.
One day Jim erupted on television, screaming about Bear Sterns and Ben Bernanke. I walked my laptop into the living room to show my wife, playing back the YouTube clip. I was scared—what if the market tanked? Our 401(k) had a lot more in it than our meager savings account, and here was a guy close to financial insiders warning us that a storm was brewing.
Within the year, our 401(k) was cut in half.
I’d never seen so much money vanish so quickly. It was sickening. But my wife, who’d studied economics, seemed eerily unfazed. She believed, like Warren Buffett, that the market would rise again. “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful,” as the Oracle of Omaha had said. From this vantage, every stock was suddenly at a discount. She told me to take $10,000 and invest it.
In comic, amateurish fashion, I immediately spent a month researching thousands of penny stocks, my thinking being, if I can buy tens of thousands of these small stocks, and one goes up to $1, I’ll be rich! Within the year, the $2,000 I spent on penny stocks plummeted to less than 50 bucks. But the other $8,000 I invested in companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Ford did not. Eventually, our 401(k) climbed out of its hole, and I rode Amazon and Netflix to the moon. To this day, those two stocks make up the bulk of my portfolio.
When the pandemic hit last year, I felt the collective Spidey-sense of a generation perk up—this was going to be another 2008. Family members were furloughed, fired, or pushed into telecommuting. Many of my close friends went on unemployment, bootstrapping Republicans among them. My business took a hit, but my wife was able to keep her job. I started looking for new ways to make money. I began spending more nights scrolling through r/WallStreetBets.
My learning curve was steep. I didn’t know an Iron Condor from a margin call, and “the Greeks”—the symbols used to denote a stock’s risk—were Greek to me (still are, to be honest). Yet I flocked there along with many thousands of other prospectors because we’d heard these useful idiots were making big gains by taking advantage of the market’s increased volatility.
This was when the real bleeding began—not in the sense of losses, but rather in the commingling of cautious, old school stock investors with the sordid black sheep of that other subreddit. It was kind of like the Chicago River, which, when overrun with rain, sends the sewage destined for St. Louis back up into Lake Michigan, clouding the potable water with the nastiest of the nasty.
Because make no mistake, r/WallStreetBets is a sewer. “Like 4chan found a Bloomberg Terminal” is the motto. Every day, self-described “autists” push each other to make exorbitant bets on wild potential swings in the market. The bread and butter of the forum is options—we bet on derivatives that give us the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell a stock based on a specific price set in the future. It’s a highly speculative form of trading that allows us to spend a lot less money than we would buying a regular stock, while taking on more risk. The chance of a regular stock dropping to zero is rare—bankruptcy would be a reason for this to happen, and you can usually get out before it tanks—but the risk of an option dropping to zero is very high. Most bets, actually, result in a loss. There’s code for these weekly options in WSB—“FDs”—which translates, as the board’s FAQ section explains, to “Faggot’s Delight,” because more than likely by the end of the week you are going to get bent over a barrel, so to speak. And if that kind of language shocks you, as it shocked me, you would do well to prepare yourself before visiting the website.
If the internet is the Wild West, then WSB is the OK Corral, pitting Gay Bears (those who bet the market will go down) against the Bull Gang (those who bet the markets will rise). I offer no defense for the behavior of its population, which can be repulsive, juvenile, aggressive, and outlandish—which is how they prefer it. Some might claim the locker room talk of this basement boiler room isn’t meant to be demeaning but rather serves as a ritual to bind us together—we are, after all, the warped echo of a larger, more established industry, which also knowingly couches its repellant phrases in irony. “One of us” is a common chant—think Matthew McConaughey thumping his chest in Wolf of Wall Street, which, alongside The Big Short, is our generation’s Wall Street. The language used in society to demean women, homosexuals, “perverts,” the disabled, and the neurodivergent is used here not to debase but to collect into a collective—that’s how I’ve seen it justified, anyway. But the truth is, we’re not a collective: We’re a horde, and the language isn’t uplifting—it’s a form of hazing, and it’s utterly contemptible.
Thankfully, no one person speaks for, or exemplifies, r/WallStreetBets. Like in politics, the price of admission puts you in constant contact with people you might otherwise oppose. We’re all here, ultimately, for one shared purpose: to catch a hot take on the next big bubble.
Here you’ll find kids making minimum wage trading ideas with middle-management types, goading each other into buying tons of cheap, foolhardy LEAPS (options that expire further out). The ethical concerns of trading certain stocks aren’t regularly discussed: People are just as enthused to bet on secretive data-collecting firms like Peter Thiel’s surveillance-state colossus, Palantir, as they are to bet on weed stocks or green energy kelp farms.
Being anonymous forces one to ignore the person behind the information. That savvy-sounding individual who posted about that hot CRISPR stock might believe all Black Lives Matter protesters are antifa lizard people running pedophile rings and that Bill Gates and George Soros created 5G to hack our brains, but that doesn’t really matter—all that matters is whether you trust their research. And if you don’t, you move on. Or you wait to see how popular the thread gets, and maybe buy a little anyway, just in case.
And sometimes these anonymous picks precede a parabolic curve. Beginning last summer, nearly all of my stock buys came from analyses found on WSB. I’ve made strident gains from “meme stocks”—stocks bandied about so often they find their way into user-made videos and digital art. These companies include Chinese electric vehicles, biotech research labs, fintech companies. But I’m also one of the many investors who have been left holding a bag of dead weight: a Norwegian airline, an international trucking company, a small business that grows “gourmet-grade shrimp” in large, indoor aquariums.
Hold on, I just checked again: The shrimp company is actually now up 172 percent.
Meme stocks are real stocks.
There’s always a new bubble, and the point is to get in early. Usually a bubble constitutes an entire industry, like tech or housing, where company valuations are hugely overinflated and stock prices diverge from shadowing the S&P to climbing to dizzying heights. These days, a bubble can be a single stock. If enough institutional and so-called “dumb” money flows into a company like Tesla, its valuation soars, pulling, like a dark star, loads of cash toward its center, with new investors crowding in for fear of missing out on gains. In Tesla’s case, it made its founder the richest person on the planet, if only for a few weeks.
This year, that bubble was GameStop.
The main difference between a Tesla and a GameStop is that everyone knows that GameStop is actually only worth $5–$10 a share, not the $300 it’s sitting at currently. We all know it’s going to crash. But if that’s the case, you may ask, why are we still invested in it?
Because this particular bubble became a call to arms. It outgrew its youthful rebel heart, and, like a young Prince Hal, discovered a purpose.
What began as a simple options play by WSB user DeepFuckingValue over a brick-and-mortar gaming company he thought had better-than-advertised fundamentals became a once-in-a-lifetime takedown of hedge funds shorting the company’s stock by an impossible 138 percent—that’s 38 percent more stock shorted than the amount of stock that actually exists. How this is possible, or legal, is beyond me.
(For clarification, a short sale is when an investor borrows stock from someone, sells that stock on the open market, rebuys the stock at a hopefully lower price, then returns the borrowed stock to the original owner, while pocketing the profit.)
The egregiousness of the greed on display—a billion-dollar hedge fund, Melvin Capital, hoping to drive GameStop into bankruptcy during a pandemic—only sweetened our delight. As word spread, more retail investors got in on the action. “It can’t go tits up!” the speculators exclaimed, but it required us to buy and hold—no selling—if we were going to take down The Man. We needed people with diamond hands, not paper hands—meaning that even if the stock dropped by a lot, you still didn’t sell. You never sold. This was the only way to force the shorting hedge funds to close out their positions at much higher prices, at a loss to them. Many of us did our buying using the Robinhood app, and that charming allegorical detail made “stealing” from the rich all the more delectable.
The exuberance of catching a hedge fund with its fist in the cookie jar trickled over to other stocks with large short-sell holdings: AMC Entertainment, American Airlines, Bed Bath & Beyond, BlackBerry, Koss, Nokia. Even Tootsie Roll Industries got a boost from us, and I was bewildered and happy to learn they still existed as an independent company.
What solidified our resolve to buy and hold GameStop was how institutional investors reacted to our score, taking to Twitter and financial news programs to harangue and mock us. CNBC was particularly snobbish and patronizing, rolling out hedge fund manager after manager to call us names and attack our investing methodologies. It took David Faber and Jim Cramer months to utter the name “Wall Street Bets”; until then, they preferred to obliquely refer to a certain internet chatroom. The New York Times targeted us as investors driven by little more than “greed” and “boredom.” Andrew Left of Citron Research got under people’s skin by proclaiming the real value of $GME to be around $20—and for this he was dragged, not because he was wrong, but because he was shorting GameStop, and heavily invested in our failing.
The standoff really ramped up after New York Mets owner and mouthy billionaire Steven Cohen did two things: First, his company Point72 helped bail out Melvin Capital, one of the main hedge funds shorting GameStop, to the tune of $750 million; then, following the bailout, Cohen took to Twitter to taunt us, saying, “Hey stock jockeys, keep bringing it.”
So we brought it. And bought it. And the louder we got, the more attention we garnered from institutional investors and financial-world luminaries. One of the more exciting, incendiary displays of allyship came when Chamath Palihapitiya, an ex-Facebook VP turned repentant social guru, went toe-to-toe with a clearly exasperated Scott Wapner on CNBC for 26 minutes of commercial-free class warfare. Chamath had placed his own bet on GameStop, cashing out to the tune of $500,000, which he donated to David Portnoy’s Barstool Fund for small-business owners, because he wanted to make a crucial point about the disparagement of average investors by the media (and because he’s a billionaire who may one day run for governor of California).
The political reasons for buying GameStop stock quickly became paramount. People drew down other investments to reinvest in GameStop, building a wall out of $5,000, $30,000, even $100,000 bricks of stock. There were also workers buying one stock at a time and railing against the powers that be in the chatrooms, with the voice of the proletariat, as Orwell might say, in their mouths. The game was clearly rigged, but for once it felt like we had the upper hand.
Sure, not everyone would hold the line—in fact, many people sold at one point and bought back in later. We forgave those who posted their closed-out positions in order to pay for their dog’s surgery, their parents’ medical expenses, the student loans and rent payments hanging over their heads. Some posted pictures of their donations to children’s hospitals and homeless shelters.
The talking heads and their vituperative old-money guests continued their disparagement, suggesting we weren’t sophisticated enough to realize the risks involved—that we were not “well-informed investors,” in the legal sense. Yet it was clear the hedge funds were listening, and hedging, packing their bricks of money next to ours in the great wall, while hoping it might all crumble further down the way.
Elizabeth Warren is right: Wall Street is a casino.
During the initial run-up of GameStop’s stock, I bought 75 shares at $97.56 and a $105 option call with an expiry of January 29. Overall, I invested around $8,800. By Wednesday, January 27, my diamond hands turned paper, and I cashed out the option for $19,900. A little later in the day, I sold 30 shares of $GME stock for $11,000, leaving in roughly $15,000 as my own personal brick in the wall. This I will hold until the roof caves in. I rode the waves upward and down, along with hundreds of thousands of others, from Sante Fe to Germany to Japan, in this crazy global effort to make a clear point—that we as investors have power.
But on Thursday, January 28, Robinhood—the go-to app for millions of retail investors—shut down our ability to purchase GameStop stocks, along with a dozen or so other companies we were raiding and holding against heavy short sales.
Robinhood allowed us to sell the shares we had, but we couldn’t purchase more.
After the Robinhood freeze went public, other online brokers pulled the plug or began heavily restricted trading. TD Ameritrade. Then Schwab. E*Trade. Webull. Trading 212. Major investment platforms, vehicles for the average investor to take part in legal commerce, closed their doors to us, en masse.
Meanwhile, massive firms like Citadel and Melvin Capital faced no such restrictions.
The stock price of GameStop plummeted.
The short-selling billionaires were given some breathing room, and took this opportunity to close out their positions at lower losses. As Fox Business host Charles Payne put it: “Wall Street [is] now changing the rules of the game. In effect, they’ve gone to war with the very clients they lured with the promise of a democratized system. The long knives have come out, shutting down the investing revolution the elites could not control.”
Worse, a wicked bit of information was rapidly spreading across the forum. It turned out that Citadel—the same company that had bailed out Melvin Capital, the main hedge fund we were squeezing—was paying Robinhood huge sums of money to learn about our buying habits, milliseconds after we made our trades. Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood, said the freeze wasn’t the Securities and Exchange Commission pulling our fingers off the trade button, but his own self-imposed measure of protecting us, the naïve users, while opaquely hinting at some possible cash flow problems of his own. He made sure to mention that Citadel wasn’t consulted in the decision.
This was a hard pill to swallow for many investors. Never before had we been shut out of making our trades, in close unison, across platforms. The message was unmistakable: If we attacked the wrong people for too long, we’d get shut down.
Almost immediately, politicians on both sides of the aisle weighed in on the development, often taking the side of the common investor (a.k.a. the voters). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was perhaps the most vocal and decisive, calling for a congressional hearing into the relationship between Citadel and Robinhood.
By Friday, we’d learn that there were issues with collateral and margin calls that sent Robinhood and other online brokers shuttering their gates. That still didn’t make it right, and no doubt the freeze will be the subject of a more thorough investigation. Several investors have already filed suits against Robinhood, posting their legal documents on r/WallStreetBets to much rejoicing.
This week, Citron Research canceled its “Short Reports,” which cataloged companies ripe for shorting. AMC Theaters was able to turn its radical value upswing into real money by turning debt into stock for a private-equity firm, all but ensuring that we’ll all be able to go to the movies again after the pandemic. The private equity firm Silver Lake sold off its entire AMC stake for a reported $713 million.
So what are we left with? Is this really the beginning of the most powerful new investment firm in the nation—Wall Street Bets Securities? A decentralized, fluid amoeba hunting down short-sellers and snacking off the leavings of corporate whales? Or will the SEC step in and stop us from trading derivatives, in the name of protecting us from ourselves?
Every business day, institutional traders have shorted small companies straight into bankruptcy, and nobody said a thing. Yet today, when small investors squeeze a few hedge funds, the talking heads are quick to preach fiscal responsibility and apocalyptic economic collapse.
One of the older logos of r/WallStreetBets was a yellow-haired, chubby-faced little prick on a yacht. He wore sunglasses and reminded us of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Jordan Belfort, the penny stock pump-and-dumper in The Wolf of Wall Street. The running joke was we’d all get rich and become that guy—a life of cocaine, hookers, and Lambos.
What GameStop-gate exposed about us, though, is that we’re actually a wide array of people, many of whom are struggling under mountains of debt and wildly unsure of the future. Some of us live paycheck to paycheck and are willing to risk some of that money for the possibility of a once-in-a-lifetime win. Over the past couple weeks, we’ve begun to sense some unity among us, something larger than ourselves. We have a platform to share our ideas, some new funds in our pockets, and a clear common enemy. We see the potential ahead, and it’s interesting, because we understand something new: When unified, we can be a market mover.