The company still known as GameStop
Whose model for business, a mall shop
Was heavily shorted
Has seen those shorts thwarted
By buyers whose bubble will not pop
While I recognize GameStop (GME) seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the FX markets, I have been asked by a number of people to explain what happened, so I thought I would offer a relatively short explanation of the events, which were truly remarkable. And arguably, this is much more about markets in general, and market sentiment in particular.
As always, I think a little perspective is in order. GME was born in 1984 as Babbage’s in Dallas, Texas. After a series of mergers, it was acquired by Barnes & Noble in 1999, who merged it with another company, Funco, Inc. and renamed this entity GameStop. It went public in 2002, was spun off from Barnes & Noble in 2004, and then grew as a business. Its business model was to be the go-to place for electronic games, and it eventually opened more than 5000 sites throughout malls in the US and around the world. The problem, of course, is that even before Covid-19, bricks and mortar retail space was suffering. This was especially so for this business, where games can be downloaded over the internet, and disks and cartridges have lost their appeal. Covid seemed like the last straw, as malls all over the country were closing and saw extraordinary reductions in foot traffic, thus devastating the company’s business.
Over the course of the past twelve months, short interest in GME stock skyrocketed, as a number of hedge funds expected that the company would file Chapter 11 relatively soon. After all, revenues had fallen more than 30% on a Q/Q and Y/Y basis, and profitability had disappeared. In truth, it seemed a pretty logical bet. However, hedge funds, being hedge funds, and reveling in as much leverage as possible given ZIRP, actually created short positions that grew to 140% of the outstanding float of the stock! How, you may ask, is that possible? Well, clearly, there was some naked shorting going on, which means that some of them were selling the stock without having borrowed it to deliver. Oh, yeah, that is illegal these days. It is also entirely possible that some brokers holding the stock rehypothecated it, meaning they lent it out more than once, also illegal.
Fast forward to three weeks ago, where a financial analyst, whose Reddit handle is Roaring Kitty, figured out that the short positions in this stock were untenable. He posted on the Reddit thread WallStreetBets, which picked up traction and encouraged people to buy the stock. Hence, the stock started to rise after months, if not years, in the doldrums.
The next step came from the options market, where the several million followers of WallStreetBets figured out that the leverage available in buying out of the money call options (also known as low delta call options) was extraordinary, and so they bought millions of them.
As a former option market maker (not in stocks, but FX, bonds and commodities), I can tell you that selling low delta options is a very dangerous trade. This is because, if the market starts to move toward the strike price, as a hedger, I am forced to buy ever more underlying to hedge my position. This is called gamma hedging and is the bread and butter of what options traders do all day long. But the combination of the extraordinary demand for low delta GME calls and the recognition by the hedge funds with extensive short positions fed on itself into a frenzy. At some point, the prime brokers who were handling those hedge funds’ business had to make margin calls and close out the short positions. And those type of buyers are completely insensitive to price, because the prime broker doesn’t pay the freight, it is the hedge fund with the short position that is getting stopped out, that takes the losses.
Now, remember, because of the size of the short position, greater than the amount of stock outstanding, this process has taken a while to unfold, and is probably not done yet. It has, however, busted those hedge funds, who have lost billions of dollars, as well has shown that they were not all that smart after all. Alas, I fear that all the Robinhooders who were a huge proportion of the buyers are going to find themselves in a bad state as well. After all, GME is still a dying business with the wrong business model for today. A $1 billion market cap is probably a lot more appropriate than the current $23 billion market cap, so look for the stock to decline going forward, although probably not as quickly as it rose.
From our perspective, though, I think the lesson of GME is more about what it says about sentiment in the markets these days. This type of price action and market activity has historically been confined to the last stages of a mania of some sort. In other words, to my eyes, and remember, I have seen market crashes starting in 1987, Tokyo in 1989, 1999-2000, and 2008-2009, this smacks of the true “irrational exuberance” made famous by former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan in 1996. Whether it is rising rates, disappointment in the slower than expected rollout of the vaccine, or pressure on profit margins and earnings misses, I expect that shedding risk is going to be the norm for the next two quarters at least. This is not to say we are going to see a collapse in stock markets, just that the gains of the pasts several months and years are unlikely to be repeated.
Which brings us to this morning, where the newest target for a short squeeze by the WSB crowd is silver. Silver has opened higher by around 8%-10% and is now pressing $30/oz. The last time silver traded above that level was March 2013, in the wake of the Eurozone debt crisis, and the only other time it did so was in 1980, when the Hunt brothers tried to corner the market. Understand this, in 1980, the market was smaller, there were more natural buyers of silver for industrial uses, notably Eastman Kodak for film emulsion, and the Hunt’s failed dismally once the COMEX changed the rules. Today, in a much larger market ($1.5 trillion) with far less industrial demand, this seems destined to fail, at least with respect to achieving the same type of impact as GME. But that doesn’t mean the price can’t go higher in the short run.
Ok, on to FX, where today is PMI day, with the most noteworthy results coming from China over the weekend. Noteworthy in the sense that they were all worse than expected (Mfg 51.3, Services 52.4 and Caixin 51.5) and all represented pretty big declines from last month. In addition, the forward-looking pieces, like New Orders and Employment also fell sharply, so it doesn’t bode well for February. Recall, China has locked down much of the northern part of the country to prevent the spread of Covid and this is occurring right before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday, the busiest travel time of the year, historically, in the country. The point is, if expectations are for China’s economy to drive global growth, we could be seeing a longer delay before things pick up.
European PMI’s were generally in line with expectations on the manufacturing side and a number of other emerging market economies saw better than anticipated results. Again, this simply highlights that the recovery in H1 is likely to be quite uneven.
As to markets, despite early losses in Asia and US futures, equity markets have turned around and were robustly higher overnight (Nikkei +1.55%, Hang Seng +2.15%, Shanghai +0.6%) and are all higher throughout Europe (DAX +1.5%, CAC +1.5%, FTSE 100 +1.2%). US futures, which had opened the overnight session down as much as 1% are now all higher by more than that.
Bond markets are also demonstrating risk-on characteristics, albeit on a much more subdued basis. Treasury yields have edged higher by 1.2bps, while bunds are essentially unchanged along with OATs and Gilts. What we are seeing is PIGS bonds rallying with yields in Italy (-3.2bps) and Greece (-2.7bps) falling the most.
With silver leading the way, gold (+0.7%), too, is higher and so is crude oil (+0.5%). In other words, risk is in favor here. Interestingly, the FX market is not as convinced, at least not if we believe that risk-on is synonymous with a weaker dollar. CHF (-0.6%) is the worst performer, which as a haven makes some sense, but EUR (-0.5%) leads the rest of the European group down, after German Retail Sales fell -9.6%! The commodity currencies have not been as badly impacted (CAD -0.3%, AUD -0.2%). Actually, today’s best performing G10 currency, other than the dollar, is the pound, which is basically flat as the success they’ve had with their vaccine program (13% of the population has already been vaccinated, the most by far for a large nation) has investors of the belief that the UK will lead the recovery.
EMG currencies are having a more mixed session with TRY (+1.7%) the leading gainer on further hawkish comments from the new central bank head there helping convince traders that tighter monetary policy will be with us for a while. MXN (+1.15%) is next in line, on the strength of the commodity rally, along with ZAR (+0.75%) on the same basis. Remember, Mexico is the largest silver producing country in the world, so the big rally in silver is clearly helping the peso. On the downside, CNY (-0.6%) suffered on its data, and the CE4 are all falling similar amounts to the euro. The rest of the bloc is less interesting and mixed as to gainers and losers.
On the data front, ISM Manufacturing (exp 60.0) is the main release today, with Construction Spending (+0.8%) due as well. It is a payroll week, but I will delve into that more tomorrow as this note is already exceptionally long. We do hear from three Fed speakers today, with a mix of uber doves and regular doves, so if anything, I expect that we will see more talk of needing more stimulus. Speaking of which, the political fight over the proposed $1.9 trillion new bill continues but, in the end, you know that they will pass another bill with a lot more money being spent.
For all the conviction as the new year began that the dollar would decline sharply, the price action through January has clearly shaken some people. However, positioning seems to be remaining steady, and I still believe that as inflation rises, real yields will fall sharply and the dollar along with it. But for now, the dollar continues to push out the weak shorts, and quite frankly, this move does not feel like it is ending. At this stage, a move in the euro toward 1.1950 seems quite viable.
Good luck and stay safe