It’s just after midnight on Friday, July 31, and the Todd Capital Options Community, a $20-per-month subscription Slack channel favored by thousands of novice options traders, is buzzing with life. Unemployment is soaring and governments worldwide are desperately trying to fend off economic collapse. But members of this online enclave are partying, quite literally, like it’s 1999—the infamously frothy day-trading year before the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000.
Despite the pandemic, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have just released jaw-dropping financial results, a staggering $205 billion in combined quarterly sales and $34 billion in earnings during a stretch when U.S. gross domestic product plunged at an annualized rate of 33%. For weeks, the club’s youthful members have been loading up on speculative call options using the mobile trading app Robinhood. Now they’re ready to cash in.
“Literally, NOTHING will make me sell my AMZN 10/16 calls tomorrow. I don’t care what happens. . . . I’m holding everything. Keep ya boi in your prayers,” says one user named JG. As dawn approaches, “NBA Young Bull” announces: “Good morning future millionaires . . . is it 9:30 yet?”
For these speculators, the adrenaline rush turned to euphoria after Apple not only beat earnings expectations but announced a 4-for-1 stock split, luring more small investors to the iPhone maker’s stock party. At 9:30 a.m. Friday, when trading begins, the call options on Apple and Amazon held by many of these market newbies pay out like Las Vegas slot machines hitting 7-7-7 as both tech giants gain a collective quarter-trillion dollars in market value. Throughout the day and over the weekend, a stream of posts scroll by from exuberant Robinhood traders going by screen names like “See Profit Take Profit” and “My Options Give Me Options.” On Monday, August 3, the Nasdaq index sets a new record high.
Welcome to the stock market, Robinhood-style. Since February, as the global economy collapsed under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of novices, armed with $1,200 stimulus checks and nothing much to do, have begun trading via Silicon Valley upstart Robinhood—the phone-friendly discount brokerage founded in 2013 by Vladimir Tenev, 33, and Baiju Bhatt, 35.
The young entrepreneurs built their rocketship by applying the formula Facebook made famous: Their app was free, easy to use and addictive. And Robinhood—named for the legendary medieval outlaw who took from the rich and gave to the poor—had a mission even the most woke, capitalism-weary Millennial could get behind: to “democratize finance for all.”
Covid-19 and the flow of government handouts have been manna from heaven for Robinhood. The firm has added more than 3 million accounts since January, a 30% rise, and it expects revenue to hit $700 million this year, a 250% spike from 2019, according to a person familiar with the private company’s finances. Not since May Day 1975, when the SEC deregulated brokerage commissions, giving rise to discount brokerages like Charles Schwab, has there been a more disruptive force in the retail stock market. Robinhood’s commission-free trading is now standard at firms including TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard and Merrill Lynch.
And Robinhood’s merry traders are moving markets: Certain stocks—Elon Musk’s Tesla, marijuana conglomerate Cronos, casino operator Penn National Gaming and even bankrupt car-rental company Hertz—have become favorites, swinging wildly on a daily basis. For the first time ever, according to Goldman Sachs, options speculators like the ones Robinhood has cultivated have caused single-stock option-trading volumes to eclipse common-stock trading volumes, surging an unprecedented 129% this year.
“I think you’ve seen a unique situation in the history of financial markets,” Tenev tells Forbes, working remotely from his home not far from Robinhood’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters, which resemble a beach house. “Typically when a market crash is followed by a recession, retail investors pull out. Institutions benefit. . . . In this case, Robinhood customers started opening new accounts and existing customers started putting in new money. This bodes positively for society and our economy if millions are investing when they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Like any skilled trader, Tenev is talking his book. His proclamations ring a bit hollow, though, once you look more closely at what is actually driving his digital casino. From its inception, Robinhood was designed to profit by selling its customers’ trading data to the very sharks on Wall Street who have spent decades—and made billions—outmaneuvering investors. In fact, an analysis reveals that the more risk Robinhood’s customers take in their hyperactive trading accounts, the more the Silicon Valley startup profits from the whales it sells their orders to. And while Robinhood’s successful recruitment of inexperienced young traders may have inadvertently minted a few new millionaires riding the debt-fueled bull market, it is also deluding an entire generation into believing that trading options successfully is as easy as leveling up on a video game.
Stock options are contracts to buy or sell underlying shares of stocks for a set price over a specified period of time, typically at a fraction of the cost. Given their complexity, options trading has long been the realm of the most sophisticated hedge funds. In 1973, three Ph.D.s—Fisher Black, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton—developed an options pricing model that eventually won them the Nobel Prize in economics. Today their mathematical model, and variations of it, are easily incorporated in trading software so that setting up complicated—and risky—trades is no more than a few clicks away. Even so, making wrong bets is easy. According to the Options Clearing Corporation, more than 20% of all options contracts expire worthless versus 6% “in the money.”
In June, Robinhood witnessed firsthand what can happen when such tools are marketed to inexperienced investors. While it’s impossible to discern every factor contributing to suicide, one of Robinhood’s new customers, a 20-year-old college student from Illinois named Alexander Kearns, took his own life after mistakenly thinking that one of his options trades put him in debt to Robinhood for more than $730,000. His death prompted questions from several members of Congress about the platform’s safety.
Despite these problems, millions continue to flock to the addictive app, and Tenev and Bhatt sit on a potential gold mine reminiscent of Facebook in its pre-IPO days. Amid its Covid-19 business surge, Robinhood has raised $800 million from venture investors, ultimately giving it a staggering $11.2 billion valuation, affording its cofounders a paper net worth of $1 billion each. But in light of Morgan Stanley’s success with its $13 billion acquisition of E-Trade in February and Schwab’s earlier purchase of TD Ameritrade for $26 billion, some think Robinhood could garner a $20 billion valuation if it went public or were acquired.
The problem is that Robinhood has sold the world a story of helping the little guy that is the opposite of its actual business model: selling the little guy to rich market operators with very sharp elbows.