Brokerage App Is a Dangerous Culmination of Intersecting Trends
By Jeff Liguori
It was supposed to democratize Wall Street — yet another DIY trend, this time with your hard-earned money.
Robinhood is a popular brokerage application that allows subscribers to open an account with as little as $1, charges nothing for commissions, and allows users to buy fractional shares of stock. Backed by venture capital and slated to go public with an estimated $30 billion valuation, the company has enjoyed meteoric growth with an estimated 13 million users, 50% of whom use the mobile app daily, often multiple times, and 90% of whom use it on a weekly basis. The overwhelming majority of its user base belongs to the millennial demographic.
Robinhood achieved what it set out to do, but at what cost?
I’ve worked in the investment field since 1994 and have managed assets for clients since 2006. I’m also an entrepreneur, so I appreciate disruptive technology amid a changing business landscape. Robinhood, however, is the dangerous culmination of intersecting trends that have harmed investors and, according to financial regulators, may have contributed to a death by suicide.
“Robinhood is not the Home Depot of investing. Do-it-yourself portfolio management has been around since the advent of E-Trade in the mid-’90s. That company disrupted the brokerage industry and forced commissions at most every other firm lower in order to compete for customers.”
The basic business model for financial advisory or money management is that the client pays a percentage of his or her account balance as an annual fee, generally around 1%. To be clear, Robinhood is a brokerage; the firm does not use discretion to manage a client account or offer advisory services. Many brokerage firms have morphed into advisors and now focus more on money management as trading commissions have trended to zero. Overall, this trend has been a positive for individual investors and has improved access to many financial solutions — mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, or individual stocks — as well as financial research and news.
Robinhood is not the Home Depot of investing. Do-it-yourself portfolio management has been around since the advent of E-Trade in the mid-’90s. That company disrupted the brokerage industry and forced commissions at most every other firm lower in order to compete for customers. Just as E-Trade blazed a path for lower commissions, Schwab, Fidelity, and TD Ameritrade slashed commissions to zero in 2019 in response to Robinhood taking market share.
But growth has consequences. Robinhood was at the center of some incredibly volatile trading in a handful of individual stocks. You may have heard of GameStop (GME). The Robinhooders gathered virtually in chat rooms, most notably on a platform called Reddit, and decided as a community which stock they wanted to manipulate. It was no small feat. From Jan. 18 to Jan. 28 of this year, the price of GME went from about $18 to a high of $478, an increase of more than 2,600%. The Robinhood crowd is believed to be the main catalyst for this action. The day GME hit $478, it also went down to $112 before finally closing around $193.
In the month of January, 1.26 billion shares of stock changed hands in GME, almost 15 times the average monthly volume. Robinhood eventually cut off any trading in GME shares on Jan. 28, as well as trading in several other stocks with a similar backstory. Imagine being a small investor, buying GME shares at, say, $250 on Jan. 27, watching your investment nearly double the next day, but not being able to trade and exit your position profitably.
As previously stated, the Robinhood story is the intersection of several trends: fiercely independent millennials, ‘killer app’ technology, and the rewards reaped from the instantaneous decision making of like-minded people, all backed by institutions awash in venture capital, looking for the next big idea. I cringe at the thought that Robinhood may compete with what firms like mine provide for clients, namely deep expertise, sound financial advice, and disciplined investing backed by serious research.
FINRA, a regulatory agency that oversees brokerage firms, recently fined Robinhood $57 million and ordered $13 million in restitution to customers. It is the largest fine ever imposed by that regulator. In the press release, FINRA even referenced the suicide of a 20-year-old trader who panicked when his Robinhood app may have incorrectly displayed a massive $730,000 loss and received only a generic autoreply when he e-mailed Robinhood customer service three times seeking help.
Robinhood the idea is a good one. Robinhood the company has a lot more growing pains on the horizon, which likely won’t prevent the founders from becoming fabulously rich. And I have no problem with wealthy entrepreneurs, who typically risk everything for a single idea. Time and again, however, the investment profession is plagued with these stories in which investors are persuaded to pursue the next big thing. I think FINRA’s message is a powerful one. Now, if someone would just listen.
Jeff Liguori is the co-founder and chief Investment officer of Napatree Capital, an investment boutique with offices in Longmeadow as well as Providence and Westerly, R.I.; (401) 437-4730.