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Lawmakers confronting the key players in the GameStop saga

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Lawmakers confronting the key players in the GameStop saga

 

The CEO of Robinhood defended the trading platform to Congress Thursday for its behaviour during the GameStop trading saga, while apologising to customers for limiting their right to trade at the height of the hysteria.

A panel of six witnesses appearing remotely was questioned by members of the House Financial Services Committee. They questioned if the intense volatility in the video game retailer’s struggling shares showed conflicts in the structure of the business that could harm unsophisticated investors.

Last month’s episode, which saw GameStop shares soar 1,600 percent at one point, was described as a small investor triumph, and a number of committee members repeated that theme while warning against any move that could discourage investors from market participation.

But sceptical lawmakers, especially Democrats, turned the heat on witnesses Vlad Tenev, Robinhood’s businessman-in-chief, and Ken Griffin, CEO of Citadel Securities, a Wall Street giant that manages an estimated 25% of all U.S. stock trading. Robinhood’s main trade partner is Citadel.

At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the head of the Financial Services Committee, said that the GameStop drama “has put a maximum focus on Wall Street companies’ institutional practises” and possible conflicts of interest. “Many Americans feel the system is stacked against them and Wall Street always wins, no matter what.”

Waters brusquely grilled Tenev on Robinhood’s behaviour on Jan. 28 as it blocked customers from purchasing shares of GameStop and a dozen other firms. The restrictions lasted for days in some form, and the incident fuelled allegations that Robinhood modified its trading rules to benefit its large Wall Street customers who, if GameStop shares continued to grow, stood to lose money.

Waters also wanted to know whether the close partnership of Robinhood with Citadel played any role in the trade restriction decision. Tenev and Griffin also denied that any role in the decision was played by Citadel.

Tenev said Robinhood placed the trading restrictions because, due to the rise in trade volume, regulators had raised capital requirements tenfold.

Still, he apologised to Robinhood clients, mindful of the investor indignation that still lingers.

“Despite January’s unprecedented market conditions, what happened at the end of the day is unacceptable to us,” Tenev said. I apologise to our customers, and please know that we are doing whatever we can to ensure that this can’t happen again.

Lawmakers also cited the prevalent practise in the order flow payment securities markets, in which Wall Street trading firms such as Citadel pay companies such as Robinhood to give them execution orders from their customers.

Keith Gill, the lively YouTube personality and GameStop booster who goes by Roaring Kitty, also testified that it does not allow Tenev to dominate the full spotlight. Long before the huge price spike in January, Gill won a handsome profit and a legion of online followers for making the case for GameStop shares on Reddit and YouTube. Gill is recognised in widely followed videos for his cat-themed T-shirts and a bright red runner’s headband.

He wore a jacket and tie for his appearance via video for the hearing, although the headband with the words “Hang in There” could be seen hanging on a kitten poster.

Gill told lawmakers that because he did his homework, and not because he promoted the stock to “unwitting investors,” he reaped a return on his investment.

Gill said, “I did not ask anybody to buy or sell the stock for my own profit.” “I had no information, except what was public, about GameStop.”

It is uncertain if Washington’s new scrutiny results in stricter control of the financial markets, although there seems to be political traction in that direction. The Securities and Exchange Commission, with a new chair named by President Joe Biden, is expected to take up the issues with a view to crafting new laws.

In general, Republican lawmakers would reject new legislation, as some expressed at the hearing.

Possible options for new regulations that have been raised include forcing market actors to report short-selling positions and regulating order flow payment arrangements.

Steve Huffman, Reddit’s CEO and co-founder, testified that his WallStreetBets platform “is primarily a real community,” at the centre of the GameStop drama.

Huffman was asked by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., if Reddit had a way to check if its users were real people.

The platform enables users to stay anonymous, Huffman said. He said, “This enables Reddit to work.” “If users had to reveal their full identity, something like WallStreetBets would not exist, because people disclose gains and losses on WallStreetBets, they effectively disclose their financial position in life.”

In addition to the actions of Robinhood during the GameStop frenzy, lawmakers generally raised questions about his business model and potential downsides to his “democratisation” of stock trading. The business offers commission-free trading, but critics argue that clients pay another secret price because Robinhood provides Wall Street companies with their data on buying and selling.

Robinhood has been accused of seeking to target young people with little or no stock trading experience by including features that mimic gaming apps on its trading platform, such as showering a user’s screen with simulated confetti when they make a purchase.

Tenev was asked by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., if Robinhood was doing enough to convey the risks to its users, considering that it “seems to have perfected trading gamification.”

Tenev said the company simply offers people what they want in a responsible manner, and that it provides its users with educational resources to learn about investing. “Gamification, we don’t consider it,” he said. “We know that they are serious about investing.”

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