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‘Short squeeze’ spreads as day traders hunt next GameStop

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A “short squeeze” that started on Wall Street swept across the globe on Wednesday, triggering another day of frenetic upward moves in the share prices of previously-unloved companies, followed by a dramatic plunge in after-hours trading when a popular Reddit message board went dark.

The dramatic moves highlight the growing influence of retail traders, who have organised on Reddit. Their success in pushing up stocks that are the subject of large short bets by hedge funds has led them to target a growing number of companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the Biden administration was “monitoring the situation” as shares of companies including the retailer GameStop, the hard-hit cinema owner AMC and tech pioneer BlackBerry whipsawed.

Moderators of the Wallstreetbets subreddit, which has now amassed more than 3.6m subscribers, temporarily restricted access late on Wednesday after becoming overwhelmed by new posts.

The decision — flashed in red headlines on financial terminals across Wall Street — sent GameStop and other shares careening lower in after-hours trading before the moderators of the page reopened the site to viewers. In a post on the page, they complained that their own software was unable to handle the flood of comments quickly enough.

“We’re suffering from success,” the moderators said, adding that they were also being impersonated on Twitter.

Separately on Wednesday, Discord, a live chat platform popular among gamers, shut down its own wallstreetbets discussion channel altogether — though it said this was “for continuing to allow hateful and discriminatory content after repeated warnings [rather than] due to financial fraud related to GameStop or other stocks”.

GameStop shares tumbled as much as 38 per cent before the Wallstreetbets subreddit reopened to non-members, more than halving those losses when it reopened, as traders in Asia began their day. The company remains more than 1,400 per cent higher for the year.

As day-traders on Reddit have found success, they have moved en masse to a growing number of securities. Stocks such as US home goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond, Finnish telecoms group Nokia, German pharmaceuticals company Evotec, former Financial Times owner Pearson and Polish games developer CD Projekt climbed sharply in intraday trading on Wednesday.

The gains stood in stark contrast to a broad market decline triggered by concerns about the rollout of vaccines and pandemic risks to the global economy. The US S&P 500 index and tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite both slid 2.6 per cent.

“It’s like a wolf pack seeking out the weakest member of the herd,” said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist for Interactive Brokers.

The flash rallies prompted TD Ameritrade to put trading restrictions in place for several securities, including GameStop and AMC. The company said the limits could include restricting short sales or requiring 100 per cent margin for certain trades, moves it said would mitigate risks for itself and its clients.

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday said it was aware of the volatility across equity and options markets and it was “working with our fellow regulators to assess the situation and review the activities of regulated entities, financial intermediaries, and other market participants”.

Some of the companies whose shares surged were targets of Melvin Capital, a hedge fund that has been singled out by day traders. Those included Evotec, which was up 9.6 per cent; CD Projekt, which rose 5.3 per cent; and the German battery manufacturer Varta, which rose 12 per cent before trimming its gains to trade up 6.2 per cent.

Line chart of Share price performance on January 27, 2021 (%) showing Day traders pump up the value of a handful of stocks

Melvin on Wednesday revealed it had closed its GameStop position, having sustained a multibillion-dollar loss on its shorts since the start of this year.

Retail investors were using “a tried-and-true hedge fund strategy of swarming crowded trades held by weak-handed investors”, said Andrew Beer, managing member at fund firm Dynamic Beta Investments.

In contrast to the US, which has limited disclosure on short bets, hedge funds and other investors have to disclose when they have shorted more than 0.5 per cent of a company’s stock in the EU and the UK, making it easier to target a fund’s positions.

Melvin’s latest disclosure shows it has bet against more than 6 per cent of Evotec’s shares, making it the largest single wager against a European company by percentage of shares shorted, according to the data provider Breakout Point. The US hedge fund’s bet against Varta is the fifth largest.

The “short squeeze phenomenon fuelled by retail investors’ discussions is spilling over to Europe”, said Ivan Cosovic, founder of Breakout Point. “We are recently detecting some European stocks being touted as ‘the next GameStop’ among retail investors.”

One European hedge fund manager who specialises in short selling described the recent stock market rallies as “insane”, but said the elevated share prices of troubled companies would “make a great opportunity” for short sellers that survived the week’s mayhem.

Additional reporting by Patrick Temple-West



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Financial bubbles also lead to golden ages of productive growth

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Sir Alastair Morton had a volcanic temper. I know this because a story I wrote in the early 1990s questioning whether Eurotunnel’s shares were worth anything triggered an eruption from the company’s then boss. Calls were made, voices raised, resignations demanded. 

Thankfully, I kept my job. Eurotunnel’s equity was also soon crushed under a mountain of debt. Nevertheless, the company was refinanced and the project completed. I raised a glass to Morton’s ferocious determination on a Eurostar train to Paris a decade later.

With hindsight, Eurotunnel was a classic example of a productive bubble in miniature. Amid great euphoria about the wonders of sub-Channel travel, capital was sucked into financing a great enterprise of unknown worth.

Sadly, Eurotunnel’s earliest backers were not among its financial beneficiaries. But the infrastructure was built and, pandemics aside, it provides a wonderful service and makes a return. It was a lesson on how markets habitually guess the right direction of travel, even if they misjudge the speed and scale of value creation.

That is worth thinking about as we worry whether our overinflated markets are about to burst. Will something productive emerge from this bubble? Or will it just be a question of apportioning losses? “All productive bubbles generate a lot of waste. The question is what they leave behind,” says Bill Janeway, the veteran investor.

Fuelled by cheap money and fevered imaginations, funds have been pouring into exotic investments typical of a late-stage bull market. Many commentators have drawn comparisons between the tech bubble of 2000 and the environmental, social and governance frenzy of today. Some $347bn flowed into ESG investment funds last year and a record $490bn of ESG bonds were issued. 

Last month, Nicolai Tangen, the head of Norway’s $1.3tn sovereign wealth fund, said that investors had been right to back tech companies in the late 1990s — even if valuations went too high — just as they were right to back ESG stocks today. “What is happening in the green shift is extremely important and real,” Tangen said. “But to what extent stock prices reflect it correctly is another question.”

If the past is any guide to the future, we can hope that this proves to be a productive bubble, whatever short-term financial carnage may ensue.

In her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, the economist Carlota Perez argues that financial excesses and productivity explosions are “interrelated and interdependent”. In fact, past market bubbles were often the mechanisms by which unproven technologies were funded and diffused — even if “brilliant successes and innovations” shared the stage with “great manias and outrageous swindles”.

In Perez’s reckoning, this cycle has occurred five times in the past 250 years: during the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 1770s, the steam and railway revolution in the 1820s, the electricity revolution in the 1870s, the oil, car and mass production revolution in the 1900s and the information technology revolution in the 1970s. 

Each of these revolutions was accompanied by bursts of wild financial speculation and followed by a golden age of productivity increases: the Victorian boom in Britain, the Roaring Twenties in the US, les trente glorieuses in postwar France, for example.

When I spoke with Perez, she guessed we were about halfway through our latest technological revolution, moving from a phase of narrow installation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, 3D printing and vertical farms to one of mass deployment.

Whether we will subsequently enter a golden age of productivity, however, will depend on creating new institutions to manage this technological transformation and green transition, and pursuing the right economic policies.

To achieve “smart, green, fair and global” economic growth, Perez argues the top priority should be to transform our taxation system, cutting the burden on labour and long-term investment returns, and further shifting it on to materials, transport and dirty energy.

“We need economic growth but we need to change the nature of economic growth,” she says. “We have to radically change relative cost structures to make it more expensive to do the wrong thing and cheaper to do the right thing.”

Albeit with excessive enthusiasm, financial markets have bet on a greener future and begun funding the technologies needed to bring it to life. But, just as in previous technological revolutions, politicians must now play their part in shaping a productive result.

john.thornhill@ft.com



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US tech stocks fall as government bond sell-off resumes

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A sell-off in US government bonds intensified on Wednesday, sending technology stocks sharply lower for a second straight day.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which acts as a benchmark for global borrowing costs, climbed to nearly 1.5 per cent at one point. It later settled around 1.47 per cent, up nearly 0.08 percentage points on the day.

Treasury trading has been particularly volatile for a week now — 10-year yields briefly eclipsed 1.6 per cent last Thursday — but the rise in yields has been picking up pace since the start of the year and the moves have begun weighing heavily on US stocks.

This has been especially true for high-growth technology companies whose valuations have been underpinned by low rates. The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite index was down 2.7 per cent on Wednesday, on top of a 1.7 per cent drop the day before.

The broader S&P 500 fell by 1.3 per cent.

The US Senate has begun considering President Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus package, with analysts predicting that the enormous amount of fiscal spending will boost not only economic growth but also consumer prices. The five-year break-even rate — a measure of investors’ medium-term inflation expectations — hit 2.5 per cent on Wednesday for the first time since 2008.

Inflation makes bonds less attractive by eroding the value of their income payments.

“I would expect US Treasuries to continue selling off,” said Didier Borowski, head of global views at fund manager Amundi. “There is clearly a big stimulus package coming and I expect a further US infrastructure plan to pass Congress by the end of the year.”

Mark Holman, chief executive of TwentyFour Asset Management, said he could see 10-year yields eventually trading around 1.75 per cent as the economic recovery gains traction later this year.

“It will be a very strong second half,” he said.

Line chart of Five-year break-even rate (%) showing US medium-term inflation expectations hit 13-year high

Elsewhere, the yield on 10-year UK gilts rose more than 0.09 percentage points to 0.78 per cent, propelled by expectations of a rise in government borrowing and spending following the UK Budget.

Sovereign bonds also sold off across the eurozone, with the yield on Germany’s equivalent benchmark note rising more than 0.06 percentage points to minus 0.29 per cent. This was an example of “contagion” that was not justified “by the economic fundamentals of the eurozone”, Borowski said, where the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in the eurozone has been slower than in the US and UK.

The tumult in global government bond markets partly reflects bets by some traders that the US Federal Reserve will be pushed into tightening monetary policy sooner than expected, influencing the costs of doing business for companies worldwide, although the world’s most powerful central bank has been vocal that it has no immediate plans to do so.

Lael Brainard, a Fed governor, said on Tuesday evening that the ructions in US government bond markets had “caught my eye”. In comments reported by Bloomberg she said it would take “some time” for the central bank to wind down the $120bn-plus of monthly asset purchases it has carried out since last March.

After a series of record highs for global equities as recently as last month, stocks were “priced for perfection” and “very sensitive” to interest rate expectations that determine how investors value companies’ future cash flows, said Tancredi Cordero, chief executive of investment strategy boutique Kuros Associates.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 equity index closed down 0.1 per cent, after early gains evaporated. The UK’s FTSE 100 rose 0.9 per cent, boosted by economic support measures in the Budget speech.

The mid-cap FTSE 250 index, which is more skewed towards the UK economy than the internationally focused FTSE 100, ended the session 1.2 per cent higher.

Brent crude oil prices gained 2 per cent at $64.04 a barrel.



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UK listings/Spacs: the crown duals

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City-boosting proposals are not enough to offset lack of EU financial services trade deal



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