What GameStop chaos means for private investors and pensions

Protesters at the Occupy London Stock Exchange demonstration outside St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The markets are in chaos following the GameStop saga - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images/Archant

If an ECG measures the health of a human heart, the FTSE represents that of the British economy. 

Stock markets are often the first indication that something is amiss - that confidence is falling, that GDP is down, that international trade talks have turned sour. 

And yet it has been somewhat gamified - boiled down to buyers and sellers, into trading jackets, Hollywood films and free apps. 

This vital infrastructure of global economies has always been vulnerable to those who take the game too far - which appears to be the motivation between the David vs Goliath battle of GameStop. 

GameStop, an American-founded electronics retailer, has repeatedly seen its shares shorted - an entirely legal practise which sees hedge funds buy and sell shares at a higher price, before buying them back a short period later for a cheaper price. 

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The profit - should the gamble pay off - is the difference between the top (sale) price and the bottom (purchase) price. 

However after months of Wall Street short selling GameStop shares a group of users on Reddit - an online social media platform - decided to buy back shares and push the prices up. 

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The results have been astronomical, with the share price rising by 700pc at one point. 

Reddit users are - in the case - the “white knights” of the stock exchange, providing a counterweight to short selling traders forcing prices down, a financial expert has said.

Richard Ross, financial adviser at Norwich’s Chadwicks, said: “What happened here was a classic 'Emperor is wearing no clothes' trick, apart from this time the Emperor actually was. 

“Wall Street firms will go to great lengths to justify a short sell - I’ve seen 60 page documents laying out arguments - but what they’re doing is seeing a downwards market pressure and are manipulating it even lower so that they can sell and buy back at an even lower price.

“The problem is that although option trading all seems like numbers and graphs these are those firms' employees' jobs, their livelihoods and their mortgages on the line. We have had a client who was the victim of short selling, a 'proper' business with a good client pipeline and almost overnight they were in conversations with core funding partners about their future.

“What Reddit had done here is redress that imbalance - they came in and rectified what they thought was an unfair short sell.

“The more people you have in the market the better because conflicting opinions on the value of a business - and hence its shares - can be marked better when you have more people weighing in from different perspectives.”

However where headlines proclaimed people investing a handful of dollars and pounds now hold shares worth tens of thousands, Mr Ross said the main lesson from this trend would be that markets are volatile and dangerous.

He said: “For every person who has come away with tens of thousands there was the potential for that person to owe tens of thousands. It just worked their way this time. Markets are dangerous things and people can end up being in way over their head if they don’t know what their doing - and very few people do. 

“Reddit users have in this case righted a market wrong because of a gap in regulation, and I think will continue to do so which is a good thing, but they won’t get it right every time.

“Short sellers will have woken up to this force now in a way they ignored out of arrogance the first time. The markets are dangerous and people need to be very, very cautious.”

Thankfully Rob Morgan, investment analyst at Charles Stanley's Ipswich office, said the GameStop frenzy would be unlikely to materially impact any long-term investors or people worried about their pension pots.

“It’s something of a sideshow,” he said. “This particular type of trader — the Reddit community and day-traders — they’re always going to be latching onto the areas of stocks that are the most volatile because that gives them potential for the shortest-term gains.”

“If a hedge fund goes into liquidation because it is in trouble that can spill over into the market and the selling of other things, but that’s a very marginal effect. I certainly wouldn’t want to overplay it.

“I’d urge people to just carry on investing in the usual way: diversify your portfolio appropriately, and don’t get sucked into something that promises a lot but is unlikely to deliver.

“Stick to your long-term strategy and don’t worry about the day-to-day noise that this is generating.”

Tony Yousefian, portfolio manager at Becketts Investment group which has offices in Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, said the lasting effect of the GameStop upon long-term investments and pensions may come from further regulation put in place to stop something similar happening again.

He said: “The problem with what has happened — which is not illegal, by the way — could be the decisions made by policy makers to try and stamp it out.

“Whatever regulations they may put in place will have unintended consequences and that may or may not have an impact on the way on people’s pensions are managed.

“The market should and must remain open and free to all investors. But investors need to actually do their homework before investing.”

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