GameStop Short Squeeze: Legal and Regulatory Implications?

It has been a tumultuous week in the investment world, with rallies among a gaggle of unlikely stocks, spurred on by a group of even more unlikely investors – retail investors who have banded together on the popular social media site, Reddit.

As has been widely reported this week, when Reddit retail investors discovered that hedge fund managers were widely shorting GameStop, AMC, and others, they urged fellow users to begin buying up these stocks. This frenzy of investment activity resulted in a short squeeze, sending GameStop’s stock price soaring, causing hedge funds to incur huge losses on their short positions, and placing popular online trading platforms in a precarious financial situation.  GameStop shares closed the week of January 25, 2021 up 400% in spite of market volatility and restrictions, and without any material change to the prospects of company.

But how did we get here?

For one, through the rise of simple, fee-free, online investment platforms like Robinhood. These platforms have empowered retail investors by providing an easy-to-use interface to enter the market and trade shares at the click of a button. But this innovation hasn’t come without its critics, who counter that the platforms may paint investments as form of gambling for users who may not have the requisite knowledge to make informed decisions about the risk they take on in their accounts.

As trading activity exploded on Robinhood this week, the platform became strained and suspended trading on a group of 13 popular stocks on Thursday, January 29th. The restrictions disallowed further purchasing of the stocks but allowed selling – making it difficult for prices to continue to rise. As reported by the New York Times, in order to continue operating Robinhood needed funds to pay both its clearing facility and its users who were owed money from prior trades. To that end, Robinhood raised over $1 billion from its credit lines on Thursday night, enabling trading to resume on Friday, albeit with significant stock-quantity restrictions.

Of course, this period of restricted trading has raised some important legal and regulatory questions. First, some Robinhood users viewed the trading restrictions as unjust behavior in the free market, with over a dozen lawsuits, including a class action, filed against the company this week. The lawsuits claim that Robinhood breached its contract with users when it began restricting their trading activity. Further, the class action lawsuit claims that Robinhood’s “actions were done purposefully and knowingly to manipulate the market for the benefit of people and financial institutions who were not Robinhood’s customers.”

According to several legal experts cited by Thompson Reuters, it is unlikely that these lawsuits will succeed, because Robinhood’s user agreement reserves the right to “prohibit or restrict” its users from trading securities at its own discretion. Additionally, federal securities law places strict limits on class actions against brokers, and users will face the tough task of proving the specific damages they suffered because of the restrictions. They will also likely need to show concrete evidence that Robinhood’s restrictions were made for an some “improper reason, such as to favor certain investors” to succeed.

Given the intense public scrutiny and media attention, it’s difficult not to wonder what comes next. In the regulatory realm, the SEC has released a statement vowing that they “will closely review actions taken by regulated entities that may disadvantage investors or otherwise unduly inhibit their ability to trade certain securities.” In fact, the SEC has already had its eyes on Robinhood in recent months. They issued a $65 million fine against the company in December 2020, alleging that Robinhood misled its customers about their main revenue source, causing users to lose $34.1 million between 2015 and 2018.

With commitment this week from both the White House and Treasury to monitor the situation, along with bipartisan support in Congress to investigate, this fast-evolving situation will be one to watch in the coming weeks.

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