February 1, 2021

Wall Street Is Part of the Swamp

The GameStop debacle shines a light on systemic corruption.

“Folks, it’s not just political now. The elites are bent out of shape that a bunch of average, ordinary users have figured out how to make themselves billionaires. … Whatever you think is going on in politics, Washington establishment, the deep state, what have you, it’s the same thing in finance.” —radio host Rush Limbaugh

Limbaugh is spot on. Putting aside the somewhat complicated mechanism surrounding short sales, what Americans of every political persuasion have learned is that what is promoted as “free market capitalism” is an utter sham. Americans got their first taste of that sham in 2008, when our self-anointed Masters of the Universe brought the entire financial system to its knees, only to be bailed out by the American taxpayer, who got more than a decade of Federal Reserve-engendered zero interest rates, decimating their savings, as a “reward” for doing so.

In short, “too big to fail” institutions that routinely privatized their profits had their losses socialized.

That debacle also involved massive amounts of “short selling,” a concept that confuses the average American. A short seller borrows shares of stock from a broker and then sells them. If the price falls, the investor buys them back again at the lower price and returns them to the broker, making a handsome profit. If the price goes up? As opposed to a bottom limit of a stock price reaching zero, there is no limit to that same stock’s price rise, meaning there is no limit on the amount of money a short seller can lose as a result.

Last week, a group of small investors in a Reddit forum known as WallStreetBets decided to work together and drive up the stock price of a video game retailer called GameStop. The group was enormously successful, and the price soared from $6 four months ago to a high of $469. Short-selling hedge funds were crushed. One them, Melvin Capital, lost nearly $3 billion closing out its position.

In short order, Americans discovered some short selling is “more equal” than others. “Wall Street is losing its mind and Wall Street now wants to change the rules of the game because a bunch of people with accounts ranging from $500 to $2,500 are taking down the billionaires,” Fox Business host Charles Payne explained.

In even shorter order, the rules were changed. Robinhood Markets, a company that sold itself as a brokerage platform for the “little guy,” promptly screwed those little guys by curbing trades in GameStop and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., whose price had also been driven into the stratosphere using the same strategy. Robinhood was joined by Interactive Brokers Group Inc., Morgan Stanley’s E*Trade, and Charles Schwab Corp.‘s TD Ameritrade, which also put trading curbs on the stocks.

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy explains the utter corruption of such efforts. “[They’re] saying, 'Hey, hedge funds are getting smoked, billionaires are getting smoked,’” he explains. “‘So we are no longer going to let you trade on certain stocks GME, AMC — we are just shutting them off. You can’t buy those stocks anymore, you can only sell them, we are going to craft those stocks so all our hedge fund billionaire friends can get out and not get killed.’ It is one of the most remarkable, illegal, shocking robberies in plain sight. No closed-door meetings, nothing behind, just right in your face putting a gun in your mouth and saying, ‘Give us all your money.’”

The orchestrated pushback promptly united the political class from both ends of the ideological spectrum. “People on Wall Street only care about the rules when they’re the ones getting hurt,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the incoming chair of the Banking Committee.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) concurred. “This is unacceptable,” she tweeted. “We now need to know more about @RobinhoodApp’s decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit.”

Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) were also on board. “Let the people trade,” he stated. She echoed, “Free the traders on @RobinhoodApp.”

According to the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, the acting head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was “monitoring” the developments. Nonetheless, the paper quoted Georgetown finance professor James Angel, who raised the possibility the Reddit traders engaged in what is known on Wall Street as a “pump and dump scheme,” but added that regulators need to prove traders engaged in “an intentional act to push a price away from its fundamental value to seek a profit.”

Columnist Matt Taibbi put such orchestrated vapors in the proper perspective. “The only thing ‘dangerous’ about a gang of Reddit investors blowing up hedge funds is that some of us reading about it might die of laughter,” he writes. “That bit about investigating this as a ‘pump and dump scheme’ to push prices away from their ‘fundamental value’ is particularly hilarious. What does the Washington Post think the entire stock market is, in the bailout age?”

There’s far more to it than that. As columnist Glenn Greenwald notes, Americans never talk about how powerful Wall Street hedge funders at the top of the financial food chain “get to be multibillionaires, without really producing anything of value, just leaching off the American economy, taking huge amounts of money in exchange for nothing.”

He also illuminates the closed loop that facilitates it. “What we have is a totally rigged system where the government constantly intervenes in the economy but not to help people who are in need, but to help the richest and most powerful.” The only people that support it, he adds, “are establishment centrists in both wings of the parties” who see ordinary Americans united against them as a threat, thus they are “desperate to reimpose a wedge between us so that we can’t unite anymore.”

In other words, while Americans are purposefully distracted with the canards of “systemic racism,” “domestic terrorism,” or “climate change”; while they are besieged with lockdowns and mask mandates; and while they had millions of their businesses and jobs crushed by a Chinese pandemic, Wall Street rolls on.

Until last Thursday and Friday, when fear gripped the markets — because a bunch of little guys fought back. Fear that revealed America is a de facto oligarchy that brooks no challenge to its contemptible status quo. And perhaps there was no better indication of that status quo than Press Secretary Jen Psaki refusing to say if Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen would recuse herself from advising the president on GameStop — because she received approximately $810,000 in speaking fees from Citadel, a hedge fund that helped bail out big loser Melvin Capital.

That incestuousness speaks volumes — about unprecedented levels of corruption.

And don’t think our ruling class doesn’t know it, which is why those who despise border walls have turned Washington, DC, into an armed camp, replete with razor-wire fencing and thousands of troops.

What are they protecting? The aforementioned status quo where “too big to fail” — and “too little to succeed” — remain immutable concepts.

Update: An astute reader writes, “There is an important clarification around Robinhood’s decision to stop trading. I wholeheartedly agree with all the other analysis (and the unfairness of Wall Street) but my understanding is that Robinhood was backed into a corner with the volume of trades and needed to raise capital to support the clearinghouse requirement to continue operating. This still put them at a disadvantage to the hedge funds who were able to act quickly to resolve shortfalls.” That jibes with what Robinhood’s CEO said on Monday in explaining the move.

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