Preferred stocks are the little-known answer to the dividend question: How do I juice meaningful 5% to 6% yields from my favorite blue-chip stocks? “Common” blue chips stocks usually don’t pay 5% to 6%. Heck, the S&P 500’s current yield, at just 1.3%, is its lowest in decades.
But we can consider the exact same 505 companies in the popular index—names like JPMorgan Chase (JPM),Broadcom (AVGO) and NextEra Energy (NEE)—and find yields from 4.2% to 6.9%. If we’re talking about a million dollar retirement portfolio, this is the difference between $13,000 in annual dividend income and $42,000. Or, better yet, $69,000 per year with my top recommendation.
Most investors don’t know about this easy-to-find “dividend loophole” because most only buy “common” stock. Type AVGO into your brokerage account, and the quote that your machine spits back will be the common variety.
But many companies have another class of shares. This “preferred payout tier” delivers dividends that are far more generous.
Companies sometimes issue preferred stock rather than issuing bonds to raise cash. And these preferred dividends have a few benefits:
They receive priority over dividends paid on common shares.
Sometimes, preferred dividends are “cumulative”—if any dividends are missed, those dividends still have to be paid out before dividends can be paid to any other shareholders.
They’re typically far juicier than the modest dividends paid out on common stock. A company whose commons yield 1% or 2% might still distribute 5% to 7% to preferred shareholders.
But it’s not all gravy.
You’ll sometimes hear investors call preferreds “hybrid” securities. That’s because they act like a part-stock, part-bond holding. The way they resemble bonds is how they trade around a par value over time, so while preferreds can deliver price upside, they don’t tend to deliver much.
No, the point of preferreds is income and safety.
Now, we could go out and buy individual preferreds, but there’s precious little research out there allowing us to make a truly informed decision about any one company’s preferreds. Instead, we’re usually going to be better off buying preferred funds.
But which preferred funds make the cut? Let’s look at some of the most popular options, delivering anywhere between 4.2% to 6.9% at the moment.
Wall Street’s Two Largest Preferred ETFs
I want to start with the iShares Preferred and Income Securities (PFF, 4.2% yield) and Invesco Preferred ETF (PGX, 4.5%). These are the two largest preferred-stock ETFs on the market, collectively accounting for some $27 billion in funds under management.
On the surface, they’re pretty similar in nature. Both invest in a few hundred preferred stocks. Both have a majority of their holdings in the financial sector (PFF 60%, PGX 67%). Both offer affordable fees given their specialty (PFF 0.46%, PGX 0.52%).
There are a few notable differences, however. PGX has a better credit profile, with 54% of its preferreds in BBB-rated (investment-grade debt) and another 38% in BB, the highest level of “junk.” PFF has just 48% in BBB-graded preferreds and 22% in BBs; nearly a quarter of its portfolio isn’t rated.
Also, the Invesco fund spreads around its non-financial allocation to more sectors: utilities, real estate, communication services, consumer discretionary, energy, industrials and materials. Meanwhile, iShares’ PFF only boasts industrial and utility preferreds in addition to its massive financial-sector base.
PGX might have the edge on PFF, but both funds are limited by their plain-vanilla, indexed nature. That’s why, when it comes to preferreds, I typically look to closed-end funds.
Closed-End Preferred Funds
CEFs offer a few perks that allow us to make the most out of this asset class.
For one, most preferred ETFs are indexed, but all preferred CEFs are actively managed. That’s a big advantage in preferred stocks, where skilled pickers can take advantage of deep values and quick changes in the preferred markets, while index funds must simply wait until their next rebalancing to jump in.
Closed-end funds also allow for the use of debt to amplify their investments, both in yield and performance. Should the manager want, CEFs can also use options or other tools to further juice returns.
And they often pay out their fatter dividends every month!
Take John Hancock Preferred Income Fund II (HPF, 6.9% yield), for example. It’s a tighter portfolio than PFF or PGX, at just under 120 holdings from the likes of CenterPoint Energy (CNP), U.S. Cellular (USM) and Wells Fargo (WFC).
Manager discretion means a lot here. That is, HPF doesn’t just invest in preferreds, which are 70% of assets. It also has 22% invested in corporate bonds, another 4% or so in common stock, and trace holdings of foreign stock, U.S. government agency debt and cash. And it has a whopping 32% debt leverage ratio that really helps prop up the yield and provide better returns (though at the cost of a bumpier ride).
You have a similar situation with Flaherty & Crumrine Preferred and Income Securities Fund (FFC, 6.7%).
Here, you’re wading deep into the financial sector at nearly 80% exposure, with decent-sized holdings in utilities (7%) and energy (7%). Credit quality is roughly in between PFF and PGX, with 44% BBB, 37% BB and 19% unrated.
Nonetheless, smart management selection (and a healthy 31% in debt leverage) has led to far better, albeit noisier, returns than its indexed competitors. The Cohen & Steers Select Preferred and Income Fund (PSF, 6.0%) is about as pure a play as you could want in preferreds.
And it’s also a pure performer.
PSF is 100% invested in preferred stock (well, more like 128% if you count debt leverage), and actually breaks out its preferreds into institutionals that trade over-the-counter (83%), retail preferreds that trade on an exchange (16%) and floating-rate preferreds that trade OTC or on exchanges (1%).
Like any other preferred fund, you’re heavily invested in the financial sector at nearly 73%. But you do get geographic diversification, as only a little more than half of PSF’s assets are invested in the U.S. Other well-represented countries include the U.K. (13%), Canada (7%) and France (6%).
I graduated from Cornell University and soon thereafter left Corporate America permanently at age 26 to co-found two successful SaaS (Software as a Service) companies. Today they serve more than 26,000 business users combined. I took my software profits and started investing in dividend-paying stocks. Today, it’s almost impossible to find good stocks that pay a quality yield. So I employ a contrarian approach to locate high payouts that are available thanks to some sort of broader misjudgment. Renowned billionaire investor Howard Marks called this “second-level thinking.” It’s looking past the consensus belief about an investment to map out a range of probabilities to locate value. It is possible to find secure yields of 6% or more in today’s market – it just requires a second-level mindset.
A blue chip is stock in a stock corporation (contrasted with non-stock one) with a national reputation for quality, reliability, and the ability to operate profitably in good and bad times. As befits the sometimes high-risk nature of stock picking, the term “blue chip” derives from poker. The simplest sets of poker chips include white, red, and blue chips, with tradition dictating that the blues are highest in value. If a white chip is worth $1, a red is usually worth $5, and a blue $25.
In 19th-century United States, there was enough of a tradition of using blue chips for higher values that “blue chip” in noun and adjective senses signaling high-value chips and high-value property are attested since 1873 and 1894, respectively. This established connotation was first extended to the sense of a blue-chip stock in the 1920s. According to Dow Jones company folklore, this sense extension was coined by Oliver Gingold (an early employee of the company that would become Dow Jones) sometime in the 1920s, when Gingold was standing by the stock ticker at the brokerage firm that later became Merrill Lynch.
Noticing several trades at $200 or $250 a share or more, he said to Lucien Hooper of stock brokerage W.E. Hutton & Co. that he intended to return to the office to “write about these blue-chip stocks”. It has been in use ever since, originally in reference to high-priced stocks, more commonly used today to refer to high-quality stocks.
Petram, Lodewijk: The World’s First Stock Exchange: How the Amsterdam Market for Dutch East India Company Shares Became a Modern Securities Market, 1602–1700. Translated from Dutch by Lynne Richards. (Columbia University Press, 2014, ISBN9780231163781)
Stringham, Edward Peter; Curott, Nicholas A.: On the Origins of Stock Markets [Part IV: Institutions and Organizations; Chapter 14], pp. 324-344, in The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics, edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne. (Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN978-0199811762)
Shiller, Robert: The United East India Company and Amsterdam Stock Exchange, in Economics 252, Financial Markets: Lecture 4 – Portfolio Diversification and Supporting Financial Institutions. (Open Yale Courses, 2011)
Imagine Imagine logging on to your own account with the U.S. Federal Reserve. With your laptop or phone, you could zap cash anywhere instantly. There’d be no middlemen, no fees, no waiting for deposits or payments to clear.
That vision sums up the appeal of the digital dollar, the dream of futurists and the bane of bankers. It’s not the Bitcoin bros and other cryptocurrency fans pushing the disruptive idea but America’s financial and political elite. Fed Chair Jerome Powell promises fresh research and a set of policy questions for Congress to ponder this summer. J. Christopher Giancarlo, a former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is rallying support through the nonprofit Digital Dollar Project, a partnership with consulting giant Accenture Plc. To perpetuate American values such as free enterprise and the rule of law, “we should modernize the dollar,” he recently told a U.S. Senate banking subcommittee.
For now the dollar remains the premier global reserve currency and preferred legal tender for international trade and financial transactions. But a new flavor of cryptocurrency could pose a threat to that dominance, which is part of the reason the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has been working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on developing prototypes for a digital-dollar platform.
Other governments, notably China’s, are ahead in digitizing their currencies. In these nations, regulators worry that the possibilities for fraud are multiplying as more individuals embrace cryptocurrency. Steven Mnuchin, former President Donald Trump’s treasury secretary, said he saw no immediate need for a digital dollar. His successor, Janet Yellen, has expressed interest in studying it. Support for a virtual greenback cuts across party lines in Congress, which will have a say on whether it becomes reality.
At a hearing in June, Senators Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, signaled openness to the idea. Warren and other Democrats stressed the potential of the digital dollar to offer free services to low-income families who now pay high banking fees or are shut out of the system altogether.
Kennedy and fellow Republicans see a financial equivalent of the space race that pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union—a battle for prestige, power, and first-mover advantage. This time the adversary is China, which announced this month that more than 10 million citizens are now eligible to participate in ongoing trials.
The strongest opposition to a virtual dollar will come from U.S. banks. They rely on $17 trillion in deposits to fund much of their core business, profiting from the difference between what they pay in interest to account holders and what they charge for loans. Banks also earn billions of dollars annually from overdraft, ATM, and account maintenance fees. By creating a digital currency, the Federal Reserve would in effect be competing with banks for customers.
In a recent blog post, Greg Baer, president of the Bank Policy Institute, which represents the industry, warned that homebuyers, businesses, and other customers would find it harder and more expensive to borrow money if the Fed were to infringe on the private sector’s historical central role in finance. “The Federal Reserve would gain extraordinary power,” wrote Baer, a former assistant treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.
Some economists warn that a digital dollar could destabilize the banking system. The federal government offers bank depositors $250,0000 in insurance, a program that’s successfully prevented bank runs since the Great Depression. But in a 2008-style financial panic, depositors might with a single click pull all their savings out of banks and convert them into direct obligations of the U.S. government.
“In a crisis, this may actually make matters worse,” says Eswar Prasad, a professor at Cornell University and the author of a book on digital currencies that will be published in September. Whether a virtual dollar is even necessary remains up for debate. For large companies, cross-border interbank payments are already fast, limiting the appeal of digital currencies. Early adopters of Bitcoin may have won an investment windfall as its value soared, but its volatility makes it a poor substitute for a reliable government-backed currency such as the dollar.
Yet there’s a new kind of crypto, called stablecoin, that could pose a threat to the dollar’s dominance. Similar to the other digital currencies, it’s essentially a string of code tracked and authenticated via an online ledger. But it has a crucial difference from Bitcoin and its ilk: Its value is pegged to a sovereign currency like the dollar, so it offers stability as well as privacy.
In June 2019, Facebook Inc. announced it was developing a stablecoin called Libra ( since renamed Diem). The social media giant’s 2.85 billion active users worldwide represent a huge test market. “That was a game changer,” Prasad says. “That served as a catalyst for a lot of central banks.”
Regulators also have concerns about consumer protection. Stablecoin is only as stable as the network of private participants who manage it on the web. Should something go wrong, holders could find themselves empty-handed. That prospect places pressure on governments to come up with their own alternatives.
Although the Fed has been studying the idea of a digital dollar since at least 2017, crucial details, including what role private institutions will play, remain unresolved. In the Bahamas, the only country with a central bank digital currency, authorized financial institutions are allowed to offer e-wallets for handling sand dollars, the virtual counterpart to the Bahamian dollar.
If depositors flocked to the virtual dollar, banks would need to find another way to fund their loans. Advocates of a digital dollar float the possibility of the Fed lending to banks so they could write loans. To help banks preserve deposits, the government could also set a ceiling on how much digital currency citizens can hold. In the Bahamas the amount is capped at $8,000.
Lev Menand, an Obama administration treasury adviser, cautions against such compromises, saying the priority should be offering unfettered access to a central bank digital currency, or CBDC. Menand, who now lectures at Columbia Law School, says that because this idea would likely require the passage of legislation, Congress faces a big decision: to create “a robust CBDC or a skim milk sort of product that has been watered down as a favor to big banks.”
Wall Street is warming up to the idea that the next big disruptive force on the horizon is central bank digital currencies, even though the Federal Reserve likely remains a few years away from developing its own.
Led by countries as large as China and as small as the Bahamas, digital money is drawing stronger interest as the future of an increasingly cashless society. A digital dollar would resemble cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin or ethereum in some limited respects, but differ in important ways.
Rather than be a tradable asset with wildly fluctuating prices and limited use, the central bank digital currency would function more like dollars and have widespread acceptance. It also would be fully regulated and under a central authority.
Myriad questions remain before an institution as large as the Fed will wade in. But the momentum is building around the world. As the Fed and other central banks work through those logistical issues, Wall Street is growing in anticipation over what the future will hold.
“The race towards Digital Money 2.0 is on,” Citigroup said in a report. “Some have framed it as a new Space Race or Digital Currency Cold War. In our view, it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game — there’s a lot of room for the overall digital pie to grow.”
There, however, has been at least the semblance of a race, and China is perceived as taking the early lead. With the launch of a digital yuan last year, some fear that the edge China has ultimately could undermine the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Though China said that is not its objective, a Bank of America report notes that issuing digital dollars would let the U.S. currency “remain highly competitive … relative to other currencies.”
After crashing earlier this year, a slew of so-called meme stocks skyrocketed again Wednesday as individual investors remounted an effort to pump up the prices of Wall Street’s most heavily shorted companies—prompting experts to warn that the saga pinning institutional investors against Reddit traders could end badly.
Headlining the recent resurgence among so-called meme stocks, shares of AMC spiked more than 100% Wednesday and have surged a staggering 570% over the past month, as heightened options activity and increasing short interest in the stock help retail traders squeeze institutional investors betting on a decline out of their risky bets.
Meanwhile, struggling brick-and-mortar retailer Bed Bath & Beyond is soaring nearly 51% Wednesday as traders on Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets discussion board tout that the stock’s short interest has climbed to nearly twice the level of fellow meme-stock GameStop, which led the January rally and is up about 60% in the past month.
In similar fashion, shares of former phone-maker BlackBerry surged as much as 15% Wednesday and have skyrocketed nearly 55% in the past month as retail hype picks up now that short interest has hit a nearly four-year high.
Other resurgent meme stocks embroiled in the latest frenzy include Beyond Meat and Koss Corporation, which have soared nearly 40% apiece in recent weeks.
“Right now, the majority of Wall Street is on standby until Friday’s employment report, so meme-stock mania and cryptocurrency trading could have little resistance,” Edward Moya, a senior market analyst at Oanda, wrote in a Wednesday email, pointing to “joke” token dogecoin’s meteoric same-day rise as a sign of further unabated market mayhem. “The retail force behind this movement is still strong, so it is anyone’s guess how much larger this bubble can grow.”
“Although we have seen some exiting of positions throughout the year, the majority of short sellers have been happy to sit on significant paper losses in the hope that retail investors will blink first and the losses won’t be realised,” Ortex analysts wrote in a Wednesday note. “This now looks like a flawed strategy.”
The recent meme stock rise follows a similar surge in January, when activist investors perched on Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets board pumped struggling firms like GameStop and BlackBerry in a bid to hurt short-sellers. “There’s a certain vigilante mindset amongst those traders being drawn into this social-media frenzy to pump certain stocks,” Nigel Green, the CEO of $12 billion advisory Devere Group, said in a Friday email, adding that “extreme caution should be exercised before joining stock frenzies of such nature.” Meme stocks have been incredibly volatile this year, with most crashing in late January once institutional investors piled out of their short bets after weeks of meteoric gains. Thus far, only AMC, which has also benefitted from businesses reopening, has recouped those losses.
What To Watch For
It’s unclear how long it may be before short interest once again wanes, but some analysts have said the market could sour again once the Federal Reserve indicates it will ease up on its accommodative policy, which has effectively facilitated high asset valuations by injecting unprecedented amounts of cash into the economy. That could happen as soon as June, when Fed officials meet again to discuss policy changes.
In another sign of frenzied investing, shares of Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corporation II plunged 15% Tuesday after a slew of Reddit traders started placing bearish short bets on the stock following a Bloomberg report its namesake sponsor cashed out of its AMC stake because shares were “overvalued.”
I’m a reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism and economics while working for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School as a marketing and communications assistant. Before Forbes, I spent a summer reporting on the L.A. private sector for Los Angeles Business Journal and wrote about publicly traded North Carolina companies for NC Business News Wire. Reach out at email@example.com
r/wallstreetbets, also known as WallStreetBets or WSB, is a subreddit where participants discuss stock and option trading. It has become notable for its colorful and profane jargon, aggressive trading strategies, and for playing a major role in the GameStop short squeeze that caused losses for some U.S. firms and short sellers in a few days in early 2021.
The subreddit, describing itself through the tagline “Like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal,” is known for its aggressive trading strategies, which primarily revolve around highly speculative, leveraged options trading. Members of the subreddit are often young retail traders and investors who ignore fundamental investment practices and risk management techniques.
The growing popularity of no-commission brokers and mobile online trading has potentially contributed to the growth of such trading trends. Members of the communities often see high-risk day trading as an opportunity to quickly improve their financial conditions and obtain additional income. Some of the members tend to use borrowed capital, like student loans, to bet on certain “meme stocks” that show popularity within the community.
You would never know how terrible the past year has been for many Americans by looking at Wall Street, which has been going gangbusters since the early days of the pandemic.
“On the streets, there are chants of ‘Stop killing Black people!’ and ‘No justice, no peace!’ Meanwhile, behind a computer, one of the millions of new day traders buys a stock because the chart is quickly moving higher,” wrote Chris Brown, the founder and managing member of the Ohio-based hedge fund Aristides Capital in a letter to investors in June 2020. “The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at times.”
The market was temporarily shaken in March 2020, as stocks plunged for about a month at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak, but then something strange happened. Even as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions of people were laid off and businesses shuttered, protests against police violence erupted across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the outgoing president refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election — supposedly the market’s nightmare scenario — for weeks, the stock market soared. After the jobs report from April 2021 revealed a much shakier labor recovery might be on the horizon, major indexes hit new highs.
The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street, between corporate CEOs and the working class, has perhaps never felt so stark. How can it be that food banks are overwhelmed while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits an all-time high? For a year that’s been so bad, it’s been hard not to wonder how the stock market could be so good.
To the extent that there can ever be an explanation for what’s going on with the stock market, there are some straightforward financial answers here. The Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to support financial markets and reassure investors it wouldn’t let major corporations fall apart.
Congress did its part as well, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy across multiplereliefbills. Turns out giving people money is good for markets, too. Tech stocks, which make up a significant portion of the S&P 500, soared. And with bond yields so low, investors didn’t really have a more lucrative place to put their money.
To put it plainly, the stock market is not representative of the whole economy, much less American society. And what it is representative of did fine.“No matter how many times we keep on saying the stock market is not the economy, people won’t believe it, but it isn’t,” said Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist. “The stock market is about one piece of the economy — corporate profits — and it’s not even about the current or near-future level of corporate profits, it’s about corporate profits over a somewhat longish horizon.”
Still, those explanations, to many people, don’t feel fair. Investors seem to have remained inconceivably optimistic throughout real turmoil and uncertainty. If the answer to why the stock market was fine is basically that’s how the system works, the follow-up question is: Should it?
“Talking about the prosperous nature of the stock market in the face of people still dying from Covid-19, still trying to get health care, struggling to get food, stay employed, it’s an affront to people’s actual lived experience,” said Solana Rice, the co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, which pushes for economic policies that reduce racial disparities. “The stock market is not representative of the makeup of this country.”
Inequality is not a new theme in the American economy. But the pandemic exposed and reinforced the way the wealthy and powerful experience what’s happening so much differently than those with less power and fewer means — and force the question of how the prosperity of those at the top could be better shared with those at the bottom. There are certainly ideas out there, though Wall Street might not like them.
How the stock market boomed when American life soured
Many on Wall Street, like many people in America, were in denial about the realities of Covid-19 when it first began to take hold internationally in early 2020. In an interview with Vox last April, CNBC host Jim Cramer recalled wondering whether “another shoe will drop on this coronavirus outbreak” in early February, only to see stocks keep rising steadily. “But nothing happened. The market kept quiet,” Cramer told Vox. Indeed, stocks continued to reach record highs.
While stocks often rise slowly, they also fall fast. And once Wall Street caught on to the realities Covid-19 might bring, the market tumbled, wiping off some 30 percent of its value from mid-February to mid-March. “No one had any idea of what the future was going to be, how deep this is, how long it would be, how wide it would be,” said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The S&P 500 bottomed out on March 23, just a week into New York’s shutdown, and after that, it made a remarkably strong recovery, month after month.
Most analysts and experts point to the Fed as the most important factor in supporting market confidence. The central bank announced a series of big measures to help support the economy and markets in March 2020, including saying that it would buy both investment-grade and high-yield corporate bonds (basically, debt that is risky and debt that is not).
“Not dissimilar to the global financial crisis, the Fed stepped in, and that was really a catalyst for a stock market recovery,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “The Fed can be very, very powerful, almost omnipotent, when it comes to the stock market.”
Throughout the crisis, the Fed and Chair Jay Powell have made clear they will support markets and use every tool in their toolkit to do it. Powell has taken an extremely dovish tone and repeatedly said the Fed won’t raise interest rates — which would presumably slow down the economy and markets — preemptively. Basically, the markets let the Fed take the wheel.
Even if it didn’t buy bonds itself, the knowledge that it would if necessary reinforced the markets — private investors swept in to take up corporate bond offerings from companies such as Boeing and Nike. Continued confidence in a dovish Fed has only reinforced market bullishness; while a bad jobs report may be bad for businesses and workers, to investors, it’s also more reassurance that low interest rates aren’t going anywhere.
The issue is, the Fed is a much more powerful force on Wall Street than it is Main Street. Its programs to help small and midsize businesses and states and cities have been far less effective than those set up to help corporations and asset prices.
“It now feels like policy, be it the Fed or something else, that the stock market should really never go down,” said Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment.
To be sure, the Fed’s role is monetary policy, and it would have been bad if markets were allowed to crash or a litany of major corporations went bankrupt. And luckily for many struggling people and businesses, Congress stepped in with fiscal policy that could be more effective in helping the broader economy — a move that, no doubt, also helped markets. It’s good for corporations that people have money to spend.
Still, some wonder whether the Fed couldn’t have tried to go further to make sure its programs to support corporations flow to people other than shareholders. “Obviously it was good, the Fed needed to do something,” said Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform. “But the criticism I would weigh was that there were no real conditions that workers were protected or rehired, that all the gains just didn’t go to the top.”
Goldstein pointed to a September report from the House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that found the Fed bought corporate bonds from at least 95 companies that issued dividends to shareholders while also laying off workers. “Surely the Fed is also so powerful that it can say, look, we need you all to prioritize rehiring your workers or we’re not necessarily going to rescue you, we’re going to rescue other companies, and that should be impactful,” Goldstein said.
Companies have been ruled by the mantra of shareholder primacy, where maximizing profits for investors is the end-all, be-all, for decades. Worker pay has severely lagged gains in productivity. Those trends were unlikely to change during a pandemic.
“Shareholder primacy means the job of corporations is to increase their share prices for this very small elite, and that means downward pressure on costs, including workers, where possible,” said Lenore Palladino, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The fact that the stock market is booming is because of the financialization of our goods- and services-producing companies, not because the real economy is doing so well.”
The market felt better about the pandemic than you probably did
Jack Ablin, the founding partner of Cresset Capital, recalls calling clients in the spring of 2020 and telling them they didn’t know how long the lockdowns and virus would last, but they were “confident” that within a year, it would be done. “Of course, it wasn’t,” he told Vox. But the general attitude remains: The markets figured things would get better, sooner or later. “Part of it was saying, look, this is temporary, we will eventually get back to business. So we were trying to look past the valley to the other side of normality.”
Not everything had to break in Wall Street’s favor for the market rally to continue — as mentioned, between the Fed and the future promise of corporate profits, investors had plenty of reasons to be confident — but it doesn’t hurt that it kind of did. The vaccine, which at the outset of the pandemic some experts warned might be years away, appeared by the end of 2020. Donald Trump did not want to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, which some investors feared would spark chaos before voting day, but by and large, the US saw a peaceful transfer of power (with the exception of a riot at the Capitol, that, while disturbing, didn’t have anything to do with the Dow).
Investors also seemed confident that Congress would come through with more fiscal support for the economy. This, too, was not a given. The $900 billion package passed in the lame-duck session in December for months seemed highly unlikely. Had Democrats not taken both US Senate seats in Georgia, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, would not have happened. While neither provided direct support to the markets, they did support the broader economy that the markets have for months been bullish on. Putting money in people’s pockets means they’ll spend it. It’s good for Wall Street that Main Street America doesn’t fail.
Some people in the industry point to a certain level of faith in America, like the type legendary investor Warren Buffett channeled during the financial crisis and Great Recession when he told people to “buy American.”
“You have to have an existential faith in America in order to be in stocks over the long term,” said Nick Colas, the co-founder of DataTrek Research.
“What has happened in the last 14 months or so is we’re believing in America again, we’re believing in our companies,” said Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets. “From every bear market and every depression, we transition from despair to hope, and the hope was defined by American companies.”
“There are two lessons to be learned over the past year. The first is that economic headlines are lagging and not leading indicators of the market; and second, market timing is a losers’ game,” said Saira Malik, chief investment officer of global equities at Nuveen, an asset manager.
Nuveen is currently interested in emerging markets for potential investment possibilities on the horizon — including countries such as Brazil, which continues to be ravaged by the pandemic. “We do feel like in the near term they are going to struggle. But the vaccines are becoming more and more available, and while they’re lagging a bit behind, we do think they’ll catch up, and they’ve tended to have the cheaper valuations to go with that,” Malik said.
At this point, it’s hard to wonder what, if anything, will truly unnerve investors.
There are still plenty of risks to the market, including that in the US, President Joe Biden and Democrats may take steps to raise taxes that would mean a hit for the bottom lines of corporations and investors. When chatter of the president’s capital gains tax proposal kicked up in late April, the markets took a small dip, but it was hardly catastrophic.
“We have an administration that clearly has ambitions and wants to pay for them by taxing capital, taxing corporate profits, now taxing capital gains. The resilience of the market in the face of all that is kind of interesting,” Krugman said. “There may be a little bit of determined resilience; there may be some element of when people are determined to be optimistic, facts don’t matter.”
Hooper, from Invesco, offered up the explanation of the Fed. “I do think on a short-term basis, we could see a sell-off if there is a risk that appears imminent, but we have to recognize that all current risks are being cushioned by this incredibly accommodative Fed, which does have an impact. It’s a powerful upward force on stocks that can counteract the downward forces.”
What the stock market does and doesn’t represent
How the stock market does matters to a lot of people. A little over half of all Americans report owning stocks, including in their retirement or pension plans. And during the pandemic, plenty of people got into day trading, for better and for worse. But some groups have much higher stakes in the market than others. More than 80 percent of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, meaning when markets go up, they’re the ones who reap the most gains. White people are also the overwhelming majority of market beneficiaries — by Palladino’s estimates, 92 percent of corporate equity and mutual fund value is owned by white households, compared to less than 2 percent each by Black and Hispanic households.
“People often forget how concentrated corporate equity holdings are,” Palladino said. “They’re held mainly by wealthy white households.” Those are the people who disproportionately reaped the benefits of the stock market’s pandemic run, while people of color disproportionately suffered the health and economic consequences of the disease.
If the US wants to create a fairer, less extractive economy where corporations and shareholders aren’t living a very different reality than people trying to pay their rent or find a job, there are ways to do it. The federal government could raise corporate taxes and tax income from investments in the same way it does income from labor and seek to rein in CEO pay.
It could also clamp down on shareholder primacy and make sure companies base their decisions not only on making their investors rich but also on the well-being of their workers, customers, communities, and suppliers. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, issued a statement that it would redefine the “purpose of a corporation” as one that fosters “an economy that serves all Americans.” The government and the public could find ways to hold them to it. Palladino, in her work, has outlined a number of proposals that would curb shareholder primacy, including requiring corporate boards to have worker representatives, banning stock buybacks, and boosting unions.
Beyond policy fixes, there’s also just the reality that the market measures very one specific thing — how investors think (rightly or wrongly) corporate profits are going to be in the future. And for many people, that measure is meaningless. “If you can assess that the economy is good when we’re in one of the worst economic moments of American history, then it’s a useless measure,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.
The past year has been a truly wild ride in America and for the stock market, though in different directions. Investors are reaching almost exuberant levels, from the GameStop saga to the crypto craze. Stocks are continuing their bull run, with no clear end in sight. There are plenty of warnings that investors are out over their skis, but then again, there always are.
It’s a far cry from a little over a year ago, when billionaire hedge funder Bill Ackman went on TV to warn that “hell is coming” because of Covid-19. Or maybe it did — just not for Wall Street.
As interest in the stock market grows and equities continue to soar, investment giant Fidelity said Tuesday that it will launch new investing accounts just for teens.
The offerings for 13- to 17-year-olds—limited to those teenagers whose parents or guardians also invest with Fidelity—will include ways to save and deposit money, a debit card and investing capabilities, all accessible on a mobile app.
Teens will be able to buy and sell U.S. equities, Fidelity’s own mutual funds and ETFs without any fees or commissions.
To open the account, a teen’s parent or guardian must enter into a brokerage agreement with Fidelity, the Wall Street Journal reported, and after that the account—and power to make trades—is transferred to the teen.
Parents will be able to monitor the account’s activity and will retain the ability to close the account at any time, the Journal reported, and teens won’t be able to trade options or borrow money to fund trades.
“Fidelity is committed to responsibly supporting young investors,” Jennifer Samalis, senior vice president of acquisition and loyalty at Fidelity Investments, said in a statement. “Importantly, our goal for the Fidelity Youth Account is to encourage young Americans to learn through action and foster meaningful family conversations around financial topics.”
$10.3 trillion. That’s how much money Fidelity manages. It’s one of the largest stock brokerage firms in the United States.
Old-guard brokerage firms and startups alike are actively pursuing the next generation of investors. Greenlight, a startup that offers debit cards and investing services for kids, was recently valued at $2.3 billion.
Fidelity’s new offering was in the works before the memestock trading frenzy that sent stocks soaring and captivated investors earlier this year, the Journal reported.
In January, retail traders from online communities including Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets and the popular brokerage app Robinhood—which is also aimed at making investing simpler for young investors—pitted themselves against Wall Street institutions which had placed bets that a handful of previously unpopular stocks would fall.
That resulted in a short squeeze that sent Gamestock and other stocks soaring and ignited a national debate about regulation, risky trades and the what some viewed as gamified app-based trading.
I’m a breaking news reporter for Forbes focusing on economic policy and capital markets. I completed my master’s degree in business and economic reporting at New York University. Before becoming a journalist, I worked as a paralegal specializing in corporate compliance.
For wealthy Americans worried about higher taxes, the future is looking bleaker. It’s all but inevitable that the Biden administration, as well as lawmakers at the state level, will target millionaires and billionaires for more levies. The new reality could feel harsh for investors who got used to paying a top rate of 23.8% on their capital gains, an amount they can lower further with many of the deductions, incentives and accounting tricks offered by the U.S. tax code.
Advisers, of course, will certainly try to help their clients adapt to whatever the new rules may be. “We’re not going to evade taxes, but we’re going to avoid them and defer them as much as we can,” Bill Schwartz, managing director at Wealthspire Advisors, said in an interview. “We’re only beginning to explore. Give us a year or two and we’ll find ways around things.”
Wealthy Americans were amply warned that President Biden and Democrats in Congress want to raise their taxes. But what has surprised at least some of them is the size and speed of proposals.
On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that Biden plans to nearly double taxes on capital gains, pushing the top rate to 43.4% for those earning $1 million or more. If passed by the Democrats’ narrow majorities in Congress, it would fulfill a campaign pledge “to reward work, not just wealth” by bringing the tax on investors up around the level paid on ordinary wage income.
Some members of the top 0.1% expressed anger, denial and grief. The stock market, which has steadily risen since Biden won the election, reacted with dismay, with U.S. equities falling the most in five weeks on Thursday.
“Obviously, this is eye popping,” John Norris, chief economist at Oakworth Capital Bank, said in a note sent to clients. He calmed clients with the suggestion that “it likely won’t come to pass, at least at these levels,” adding: “Remember, elected officials on both sides of the aisle have wealthy donors who probably won’t like this very much.”
Biden is signaling an epic shift in tax policy: For more than a generation, presidents and Congresses have rolled out the red carpet for investors. When not cutting taxes on capital gains and dividends, lawmakers introduced incentives designed to encourage investment in targeted areas.
They were following both campaign contributors and economic orthodoxy, which insisted that low taxes encourages the sort of investment that boosts economic growth. But then a new generation of economists pointed out that the real-world evidence for those theories was flimsy.
Tax cuts don’t seem to have juiced economic growth in the U.S. over the last few decades, even as they coincided with soaring income and wealthy inequality. Incentives programs — such as Opportunity Zones, a bipartisan idea to steer money to low-income areas implemented by President Donald Trump — have been criticized for rewarding investment that would have taken place anyway.
“Nobody has a crystal ball,” James Bertles, managing director at Tiedemann Advisors in Palm Beach, Florida, said in an interview. However, after the federal government spent trillions of dollars on Covid-19 relief, “most people think taxes are going to go up — it’s inevitable. We just don’t know which taxes are going to go up.”
If Biden is successful, Wall Street and investors who make most of their money from capital gains may need to get used to the idea that their taxes will look more like those of wealthy professionals such as doctors, lawyers, entertainers and even investment bankers who currently face marginal income tax rates north of 50% in high-tax states.
“Nothing is going to surprise us as this point,” said Tara Thompson Popernik, director of research for Bernstein Private Wealth Management’s wealth planning and analysis group. “We’ve been telling our clients for some time that this is likely coming.”
Strategies to avoid a higher capital gains rate will depend on the details of the proposal, and on what other provisions get changed. An obvious technique, Schwartz and other advisers said, would be to keep incomes under $1 million — or whatever threshold is in the final legislation.
Investors might also avoid the higher rate by holding onto assets for as long as possible. That strategy, however, could be complicated by other provisions that Biden and Democrats have floated, like beefing up the estate tax and ending a rule, called step-up-in-basis, that allows asset-holders to wipe away capital gains taxes at death.
Life insurance products could also be a way for investors to cut investment taxes, as long as Democrats don’t target those strategies as well.
Alternatively, investors and business owners could rush to sell assets now, or before the end of the year — assuming tax changes aren’t made retroactive to the beginning of the year — to lock in lower rates. Advisers said they’ve been discussing sales of art and family businesses, along with highly appreciated stock, by year-end.
“If you’re going to do it anyway, maybe do it now,” Bernstein’s Thompson Popernik said. “The worry is that in the fourth quarter everyone else is going to be trying to make those changes at the same time.”
Thursday’s drop in the market prompted worries that, as Biden’s plans solidify and Congress starts to take action, stocks could continue to sell off. But it might not work that way.
“I would tell people to temper their fear of a significant drop-off in the markets,” said Bob Schneider, director of financial planning at Johnson Financial Group. Historically, markets have often risen even while taxes are going up, he said.
Indeed, stocks climbed on Friday after strong economic data. Also, what else are investors going to do with their money? Especially at a time when the economy seems to be bouncing back from the pandemic, many investors want exposure to stocks.
“Yields are very low, so there aren’t a whole lot of other options,” Schneider said. “People will realize their gains and probably turn right back around and put their money back in the market.”
NEW YORK: Investors looking for ways to protect themselves from a potential market downturn and rising inflation have been warming to utilities, sometimes seen as bond substitutes, as attractive alternatives.
The S&P 500 utilities index has outperformed the broader market this month, rising 9.3 per cent so far compared with a 4.3 per cent gain in the benchmark index and leading gains among sectors for March.Driving the gains may be a defensive move by investors to position themselves against a potential slide in equities, with worries mounting over higher inflation as seen in the jump in 10-year Treasury yields and over pricey stock valuations, some strategists say.Utilities tend to do better in a downturn because they pay dividends and offer stability. “It’s a little defensive positioning,” said Joseph Quinlan, head of CIO market strategy for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank in New York.
While the economy is expected to rebound sharply this year from the impact of the coronavirus, that optimism may be dampened by next year if unemployment remains elevated and growth slows more than expected. Some investors say utilities also may be benefiting from hopes that there will be a bigger push toward green energy under the Biden Administration. President Joe Biden is expected to unveil next week a multitrillion-dollar plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure that may also tackle climate change.
“If you get any acceleration of the decarbonization rhetoric, that’s a positive for utilities,” said Shane Hurst, managing director and portfolio manager at ClearBridge Investments. But whether the recent surge in utilities has further room to run is a matter of debate, and many strategists and investors, including Quinlan, still favor cyclicals that benefit from economic growth over defensive-leaning groups such as utilities.
The gains in utilities have come amid a rotation from technology and other growth stocks into so-called value stocks. The Nasdaq Composite has fallen in March after four straight months of gains. Cyclicals, which investors dumped during the early part of the pandemic, have benefited the most from the rotation. An end-of-quarter rebalancing of investment portfolios by institutional investors may be adding to the recent rotation from growth into value.
While utilities still sharply lag gains for the year compared with many cyclical sectors, including energy, they are also considered inexpensive at this point by some investors. After a weak performance in 2020, utilities “are just really, really cheap at the moment,” Hurst said. “And that is an attractive place to be when you’re in a market that’s very much earnings driven.”
The utilities sector is trading at 18.3 times forward earnings compared with a price-to-earnings ratio of 22.1 for the S&P 500 index and 26 for technology, according to Refinitiv’s data. David Bianco, Americas chief investment officer for DWS, which has an overweight rating on utilities, said interest rates are still low, but utilities offer inflation protection because they would be able to raise their prices.
As of Friday, the S&P 500 utilities sector had a dividend yield of 3.3 per cent, the second-highest among S&P sectors after consumer staples, and well above the 1.5 per cent yield for the S&P 500, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.Benchmark 10-year note yields were at 1.660 per cent on Friday after reaching a one-year high of 1.754 per cent the week before. “Utilities is our most preferred bond substitute,” said Bianco.
JP Morgan is my friend, not the bank, but the Victorian banker. He said, “I’ve made a fortune selling too early” and as a bitcoin seller at $32,000 I invoke him as justification. Having said that, and I have stated this tactic in previous columns, I have done at least as well with about half the VAR (value at risk) by playing with the fire that is DeFi.
If you are using decentralized exchanges or keeping tokens or passing them through your wallet, it is often hard to keep track of it all. It is even easy to forget what you have and where. However, there is a great app to keep tags on your ethereum and DeFi positions and it’s called Zerion. It is a tremendous tool for keeping a tally of what you have in the wild game of token trading and it’s free and you can log in using your wallet so there is no painful registration process. I am finding it indispensable.
Meanwhile I am now back in the same position as I was before I sold the bitcoin, of hanging onto my positions by my cuticles with a wildly undiversified and unbalanced portfolio that morphs by the day into a gloriously profitable but unmanageable series of extremely volatile positions. Leaving good investing and/or trading practice at the door is an extremely hazardous approach but it seems unavoidable to capture this rapture.
In a matter of days I’ve gone from “buying all the things” to wanting to flee but that is purely because pretty much all DeFi, credible or otherwise, has gone on a massive vertical that dwarfs the performance of bitcoin and ethereum.
Here is one of my favorites that I hold and you can see why an old school equity guy, a value investor to boot, gets a nose bleed from this kind of price ascent:
Matic, previously called polygon, is not a one-off, it is just a good example. The “why” of it is simple: Matic is a solution to many of the difficulties facing ethereum and its congestion: it is a seasoned project, it is linked to a lot of major players in Silicon Valley by investment, and it has a market cap of about $1 billion, 10% of a Bumble. In the current hepped up investment environment this is chump change and the winners in DeFi will go on to be worth $10-$100 billion, even without the printing press shifting the decimal point with inflation. Chainlink, the leader of the gang, is already nearing a $10 billion valuation. So this is not a ridiculous valuation if you grok that DeFi really is a revolutionary tech that will change everything, it’s just the price performance that makes an old investor’s nerve endings start shorting out.
All that aside, the key question once again is, is the market going up or down? Bitcoin down, all crypto down; bitcoin up, all crypto up. To me, I believe these price levels are the upper faces of this mountainous cycle, but many still consider them the foothills.
So what can help us know where we are? The all-seeing eye of Google can help. Here is a chart from Google Trends:
You can see how diagnostic Google trends is when you see the progress in search of the crypto hero of the day, doge, and can judge the rise and fall of the stock hoard of Reddit’s WallStreetBets.
Bitcoin is the leader and definer of this cycle and its performance will direct the performance of all the other cryptos. Musk’s bitcoin tweets are in the data for all to see.
Whether you are a BTC $1 million by Christmas prophet or a doubter expecting an imminent correction, this is a chart to watch because the price of bitcoin and ethereum is FOMO-driven and when that impulse passes, that will be the top for this cycle. FOMO, and we are now seeing corporate FOMO, is a powerful force but it is a acute one not a chronic one, so crypto will not ride the FOMO wave indefinitely.
There are a lot of extremely strong technical charts out there, so for now I’m hanging tough, but as we have seen before, as bitcoin gyrated between $30,000 and $40,000, these markets are fragile.
Volatility is liable to shake me out soon, but it could be days or weeks, perhaps even months before it does – but a week is now a long time in crypto and that in itself is a signal which one can choose to pay attention to.
The final indicator is transaction fees. These are now exorbitant. When they start to fall it will be a signal that the FOMO is falling and for now the only way transaction fees are going is skywards.
While I have to rise at 6:00 a.m. to get reasonable transaction fees before the rest of the world wakes up, I’m going to be holding on.
I am the CEO of stocks and investment website ADVFN . As well as running Europe and South America’s leading financial market website I am a prolific financial writer. I wrote a stock column for WIRED – which described me as a ‘Market Maven’ – and am a regular columnist for numerous financial publications around the world. I have written for titles including: Working Money, Active Trader, SFO and Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities in the US and have written for pretty much every UK national newspaper. In the last few years I have become a financial thriller writer and have just had my first non-fiction title published: 101 ways to pick stock market winners. Find me here on US Amazon. You’ll also see me regularly on CNBC, CNN, SKY, Business News Network and the BBC giving my take on the markets.
The Winklevoss Twins have doubled down on their $500,000 dollar Bitcoin prediction. Banking giant, Citi, has said they believe the Bitcoin price is heading toward $318,000 by the end of this year. JP Morgan says $650k is possible. The stock to flow chart for Bitcoin shows a $290,000 dollar Bitcoin. There are a ton of predictions out there and it’s hard to make sense of these numbers. It’s hard to know who is talking about the price a year from now and who is talking about a price 10 years from now.
But one thing is almost guaranteed. We are very far away from the peak of this bull run. In today’s video, I’m going to give you my new Bitcoin prediction and why I’ve had to upgrade this Bitcoin rally from bullish to ULTRA bullish. After HOURS of examining charts and cycles, I’ve come up with this brand new prediction. I’ll go over my original Bitcoin prediction and evaluate how it worked out.
On Thursday evening Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire founder of Interactive Brokers, took stock of a day unlike any in his over fifty-year trading career. An army of novice traders had united on social media site Reddit and relentlessly bought stock and options in ailing video game retailer GameStop on trading applications such as Robinhood, driving its stock from $20 at the start of the year to nearly $500 that afternoon.
The surge cost Wall Street investors almost $20 billion in mark-to-market losses, and Peterffy’s brokerage spent the day issuing thousands of margin calls on its customers’ bearish GameStop bets, forcing them to realize losses. During the trading day, Interactive Brokers, Robinhood and other online brokerages also restricted some trading in GameStop, movie theater chain AMC Entertainment, BlackBerry and other stocks that were part of the pump. The move, they later said, was to conserve cash as their clearinghouses demanded money to cover potential customer losses amid the fervent speculation.
At Interactive Brokers, Peterffy estimated that had the firm not closed out trades, its customers were sitting on $500 million in losses. Cash got tight at Robinhood, the Silicon Valley unicorn that had raised billions in venture capital and unleashed the speculative frenzy, introducing millions of young traders to frictionless stock and options trading. It drew down hundreds of millions in its credit lines and raised $1 billion in new emergency cash as its clearinghouse reserves rose tenfold.
Peterffy went to bed that night worried of a market collapse. “If the broker has to pay more money to the clearinghouse for customer losses than he has, then the broker is bankrupt. And when one broker goes bankrupt, usually a few others do too,” he told Forbes late on Thursday evening. “So, I’m worried about a systemic failure.”
The episode of millennial and zoomer-aged Reddit traders taking on Wall Street’s wealthiest and winning has turned into the David versus Goliath tale of the age of inequality. There are some big winners from GameStop, young investors who’ve already taken massive profits that can be used to pay off student debt, or build savings. For many onlookers, the humiliation of Wall Street is icing on the cake.
Despite the wry cheers, GameStop’s surge is surfacing a market fraught with leverage, unprecedented speculation and superficial analysis at almost every corner, exposing enormous risks. The pain started with the hedge funds that lost big, but as risk bubbles over, it will have reverberations in the broader market (see story).
“What’s been happening really is a reflection of the quality of analysis, the quality of work, the quality of input that is coming to Wall Street,” says billionaire investing legend Michael Steinhardt. “And it’s a sorry tale, that something like this can happen and it’s obviously something that will have a bad ending for people who are in a position to afford it least.”
Long-short equity hedge funds generated big gains in 2020 as they bet on the digital companies that thrived during the Coronavirus pandemic, and hedged their rising portfolios by crowding into bets against troubled retailers like GameStop. But they entered the new year complacent.
“When I looked at these shorts, I thought who the heck would be short movie theaters, bricks and mortar retailers and airlines when we’re just beginning to clear bottlenecks in vaccine distribution,” says Barry Knapp, managing partner of Ironsides Macroeconomics. GameStop entered 2021 as one of the most shorted stocks in the world, though positive changes were afoot inside the company as online sales surged and customers lined up outside its stores to buy new PlayStation consoles. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has been flooding the market with liquidity and a second round of stimulus checks hit bank accounts at the end of the year, a risk hedge funds should have sidestepped. The complacency was exploited by the Reddit army, to devastating effect.
A hedge fund named Melvin Capital, backed by Billionaire Steven A. Cohen of Point72, was the biggest victim, dropping 53% in January according to the Wall Street Journal, in part due to its GameStop short. One of Melvin’s mistakes was disclosing a put position against GameStop (a bet shares would fall) on its public filings, which gave the Redditors a target to rally around. It could have done the trades over-the-counter, remaining discreet, or closed them. Last week, Melvin required a $2.75 billion infusion from Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management and Citadel, owned by billionaire Ken Griffin, due to its losses.
Other big funds were hit hard. “People are telling me that the pain is anywhere from down 10% on the low end, which is Steve Cohen, to down 30% on the high-end,” says hedge fund insider Anthony Scaramucci of Skybridge. Large funds swept up in the losses include Cohen’s Point72 and highly-regarded funds like D1 Capital, Holocene Capital, Viking Global and Ken Griffin’s Citadel.
These funds may have mistakenly taken a piping hot stock market as a sign of genius, pressing their trade too far. “Tech stocks today are historically overvalued. On many metrics, they’re higher than they were at the peak of the dot-com bubble,” says Kevin Smith, chief investment officer of $200 million in assets Crescat Capital.
Fueling soaring valuations is perhaps the biggest speculative frenzy witnessed in a century, thanks to frictionless and zero-cost stock and options trading by Robinhood. Single stock call option trading has hit new records. Junky GameStop, not Apple or Microsoft, was by far the most traded company in America at times last week. Daily option premiums traded in the video game retailer surged to nearly $10 billion, more than the entire S&P 500 Index.
It’s all thanks to online brokerage Robinhood, which introduced millions of young traders to these dangerous derivative financial products and adeptly built a platform that encourages video game-like speculation. While Robinhood purports to democratize investing, behind the scenes it makes money feeding customers order to Wall Street’s savviest traders (see story). Giant market making firms like Citadel Securities and Virtu Financial have been more than happy to pay for the flow of orders coming from Robinhood, earning record revenues executing the trades in 2020. Time and again, however, the construct has proven unable to handle the rampant speculation it encourages.
For the past year, Robinhood has crashed at the apex of market activity and a new problem emerged Thursday. Because Robinhood onboards clients with margin accounts so they can begin trading instantaneously, it’s required to post collateral for its traders’ activity. On Thursday, the activity was so large, concentrated and speculative, Robinhood’s clearinghouses demanded extra collateral, creating a cash crunch that led to the trading freeze. Robinhood then went running to its venture capital backers for a $1 billion cash infusion.
Lawmakers and celebrities came to the Redditors defense. When trading was restricted in GameStop, just as they could smell hedge fund blood in the water, both New York Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Texas Senator Ted Cruz demanded investigations. Comedian Jon Stewart lamented, “this is bull**it. The Redditors aren’t cheating, they’re joining a party Wall Street insiders have been enjoying for years…maybe sue them for copyright infringement instead!!”
GameStop’s rise began with reasonable analysis, but morphed into an arbitrage that exploits free options trading. Ultimately, it has revealed a new force in financial markets that’s crashing Wall Street’s clubby party, with hard to predict consequences. “Frictionless and highly gamified environments ignite the basest instincts of human nature,” says Paul Rowady of Alphacution Research. “Lubricating people to forego whatever discipline and self-control that they might otherwise have is the intended goal of these environments. And, with sustained exposure comes indelible impacts.”
GameStop’s ascent started in the summer of 2019 when Michael Burry, the hedge fund manager lionized for spotting the housing bubble in “The Big Short,” uncovered his next great trade in GameStop. Burry bought two million shares and recommended an obvious arbitrage. “GameStop could pull off perhaps the most consequential and shareholder-friendly buyback in stock market history with elegance and stealth,” Burry told the company after disclosing his position. “Mr. Market is putting this one right in your hands,” said Burry. Within months GameStop spent $200 million to retire 38% of its heavily shorted stock.
It seeped into social media. In September 2019, Keith Gill, a 34-year financial advisor in Massachusetts, got into the GameStop trade, paying $53,566.04 to buy 1,000 call options on the company and posting his position to Reddit on Sept. 8, 2019 under the pseudonym u/DeepF__ingValue, which eventually became a sensation with millions of followers. By July 2020, he was publishing videos to YouTube under the pseudonym Roaring Kitty, presenting in kitten-themed tee shirts his detailed analysis on why GameStop could gain big if the market grew more optimistic on its sales as a new PlayStation console was released. Others jumped in. Ryan Cohen, the billionaire founder of online pet food seller Chewy, bought 10% of GameStop, and joined its board in the fall, hoping to bolster its digital platform.
With positive change afoot, Reddit posters uncovered the potential for a squeeze due to GameStop’s heavy short interest and the interplay of options trades on platforms like Robinhood and their execution by market makers like Citadel Securities. Because call options are the right to buy 100 shares of stock at a specified price for a specified period of time, the market maker executing the trade (Citadel Securities, for example) hedges itself by buying actual shares.
If enough buying activity could be organized, the Redditors realized, demand for GameStop shares would far exceed available supply, pushing prices far higher. Eventually, hedge funds short GameStop would be forced to close or cover their positions and buy GameStop shares at higher prices, adding even more upward pressure to the stock. It would be similar to the organized run on shares of United Copper, which caused the Panic of 1907, only in a digital world.
The dynamics pushed GameStop up almost 2,000% in 2020, to a $22 billion market value. Had GameStop trading not been halted, it might have ripped far higher, and it may yet.
“It’s not like everyone is an idiot just playing with their money,” says Taylor Hamilton, 23, an IT worker who has made well over $100,000 in profits and paid his off student loans since starting to trade options on online brokerages like Robinhood in March 2020. “We understood what was going on and we understood how to take advantage of the moment.”
The key for the Reddit army is to get out before the music inevitably stops. “We’re in a naturally occuring Ponzi,” says Ben Inker, head of asset allocation at GMO, “The market needs to draw in more and more money to keep this afloat. Eventually you don’t have enough and it collapses.”
For some, the squeeze is the outcome of a decade of encouragement of risk taking. Signs of excess are everywhere, from record Spac issuance to red hot initial public offerings that double or triple in a matter of days. “Policymakers are essentially telling us as investors that the prudent and responsible thing to do in this cycle is to be irresponsible and imprudent. These guys on Reddit figured it out,” says Marko Papic, chief strategist at Clocktower Group.
Things may yet get crazier, and the possibility of a debacle that hits the portfolios of index fund investors seems inevitable. As GameStop and other “meme” stocks squeezed higher, hedge funds liquidated their portfolios en masse, causing a sharp weekly drop in the S&P 500 Index. With hedge funds squeezed to the hilt, brokerages low on cash, and millions of investors maintaining enormously speculative positions, risks of bad surprises abound.
“Where there’s leverage, there’s susceptibility to squeezes and tails,” says Mark Spitznagel, the head of Universa Investments. “The entire marketplace is leveraged in an unprecedented way right now.”
The biggest immediate issue is that the squeeze is far from over. “I keep hearing that most of the GameStop shorts have been covered. Totally untrue,” says Ihor Dusaniwsky, of market data firm S3 Partners. “Brokers have been telling me as soon as some shorts are covering there is a line of new short sellers looking to short GameStop at these high stock price levels in anticipation of a pullback.”
Short interest in GameStop is now $11.20 billion with 57.83 million shares shorted, or 113% of its tradable shares, near record highs, according to Dusaniwsky. Shares shorted have declined by just 8%, despite the billions already lost.
“These stocks could be pushed further,” worries Peterffy of Interactive Brokers, “It is a very dangerous, but very attractive game for both sides and the positions may increase accordingly… SCARY.”
—With reporting from Eliza Haverstock, Halah Touryalai, Christopher Helman, Sergei Klebnikov, Matt Schifrin and Jon Ponciano
I’m a staff writer and associate editor at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, mergers, and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a member of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara
GameStop has captivated Wall Street’s attention. The stock’s rise has been otherworldly. But the obsession isn’t just with the rally, it’s with who’s making money off of it. Legions of individual investors — regular, everyday people — gathered on social platforms like Reddit and decided to send GameStop stock, as they would say, to the moon. This week, GameStop shares soared 400%, a hedge fund had to get bailed out, and online trading platforms had to restricting trading on GameStop and other hot stocks. Here’s how the GameStop saga played out, and what’s next as lawmakers turn their sights on the story that took over Wall Street this week. »
“The forward 12-month [price/earnings] ratio for the S&P 500 is 21.7,” Factset’s John Butters observed on Friday. “This P/E ratio is above the 5-year average (17.4) and above the 10-year average (15.6).”
And as Myles Udland noted last week, valuations often spend extended periods of time far above average while spending very little time trading near their averages. (See more here, here and here.) Indeed, much of the gains you see in the stock market have been achieved while valuations appeared expensive.
In recent years, everyone from billionaire investor Warren Buffett to Fed Chair Jerome Powell have stressed the importance of rates when considering valuations. And with rates having been at unusually low levels for years by historical standards, you could argue we’ve been in a new market regime that justifies elevated P/E ratios.
“Yes, valuations appear stretched at first glance, but they also need to be considered within the context of historically low interest rates and little inflation, ingredients that are likely to persist throughout 2021 and beyond, in our view,” BMO Capital’s Brian Belski wrote on Thursday. “When viewed through this lens, we believe it is not unreasonable for market valuation to sustain (or even expand slightly) from its current level.”
Belski sees the S&P 500 climbing to 4,200 next year.
“With respect to multiples, we expect rates moving higher will be a headwind to valuations, though falling equity risk premium in a recovering economy will provide some offset,” Wilson said. “The market has entered the phase of the economic recovery when multiples compress as earnings move higher.”
Wilson’s point about multiples shrinking as earnings rise is worth reiterating because it’s a reminder that prices do not have to fall for valuations to contract. It’s simple math.
That same math helps to explain why Credit Suisse’s Jonathan Golub sees the S&P climbing to 4,050 as valuations come down: “Our target suggests multiples will contract from 21.9x today to 21.3x by year-end 2021, as earnings grow into currently elevated multiples.”
We’ll see what stock prices do in 2021. But don’t be surprised prices continue to rise despite what appear to be “stretched” valuations.