Two years after what happened with Gamestop, the post-pandemic investment industry continues to grapple with the empowerment of retail investors; Since 2020 we have witnessed the rise of a breed of time-sensitive operators, trading apps, highly accessible from any device with an internet connection, 24/7 markets – such as crypto-assets – and liquidity galore, thanks to the endless stimulus of central banks.
This market player also had an exceptional ally: social channels, which allowed individual investors to communicate, organise and launch joint investments, wresting billions of dollars from the bottom lines of Wall Street hedge fund giants;
The changes brought about by retail investors
Players in the sector are trying to decide whether this phenomenon will remain a passing fad or whether the hypothetical new paradigm will be consolidated, despite the fact that the current investment context is diametrically opposed to that of the Covid-19 pandemic years. Whatever the outcome, it has become clear that retailers have brought about irreversible change;
One of them is the intervention of market supervisors around the world in the contents of social networking sites (SSNs) and their willingness to discipline and tie down the so-called influencers. An unprecedented act in which they have crossed the red line of any interference in freedom of expression;
Retail investors lose money
Obviously, regulators must be presumed to be in good faith; It is equally obvious that in their warnings and requests for information to alleged financial gurus on social media – so far they have not taken action in Spain – they have acted out of a mission to protect small investors, given the speed with which they are burning their portfolios;
However, the figure of retail investors who are in losses has been public since 1 August 2018, when the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) undertook a major regulatory overhaul which obliged regulated brokers in Europe to report quarterly the percentage of negative accounts; Statistics show figures of up to 90% of proprietary traders’ balances in the red on some of these platforms, while the minimum percentage of losses is around 65%;
That most retail investors lose money is an acquired wisdom of the financial markets; But it is nonetheless true:
- Some studies by market authorities ofUK and USA show figures that are similar to the European figures and confirm that this is the case for 85% of the traders.
- In the world of Forex (Foreign Exchange Markets), more than 95% of first-time investors blow up all their capital in the first year and a study by the Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC), from 2011, revealed that 70% of foreign exchange traders are making a loss every quarter;
Retail investors and gurus, an inherent binomial of thetrading
The vulnerability of the inividual traders is more than evident in the light of the figures; This has not gone unnoticed by the market, as it has traditionally been an opportunity to generate business in the form of education, training and mentoring especially for individual investors;
Most trainers, either on their own or through broker programmes and industry media, have embarked on this task with a genuine desire to support retailers; And many of them are backed up by success stories and more than 20 years of experience in working alongside the traders.
Specialised media and networks of forums and blogs have played – and continue to play – a fundamental role in theeducation of the retail investor community over the years; Retailers have traditionally clustered around these spaces, where they have also helped each other;
Retail investors victimised by scam traders
But there has also been a proliferation of so-called scam traders, that have used empty promises of returns of up to 100% per annum as a hook, asPaco Lodeiro of Academia de Inversión warned back in 2017.
There has been no shortage of scandals, some of them as notorious as the case of Josef Ajram, who went from trading star with ‘The Ajram Method’ to give up the management of its own SICAV in 2018, with losses in the millions. Others, far from the media spotlight, have also long used the aforementioned channels and, in recent years, have found inYouTube, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok an exceptional loudspeaker;
While they arouse distrust and suspicion in equal measure among more experienced investors, who can spot the trap and the cardboard in messages that are almost always full of promises of immediate wealth through shortcuts and little effort, this is not the case for less experienced investors; And not to mention among newcomers, who are oftencentenials, digital natives who are easily swayed by these siren songs;
In short, the trader and the guru -or the expert- interact on social channels, blog communities and forums for years, in a sort of ecosystem as old as retail itself, in which predators have always existed. So why has the Spanish Securities and Exchange Commission (CNMV) not taken action on the matter until 2022, when it conducted a review of investment recommendations issued by influencers”?
So far we have argued several points; Let’s recap:
- The relationship between experts who offer investment advice and retailers is as old as trading
- Individual operators and these experts have been linked in social communities that are some 20 years old – remember that Facebook, for example, is only available in Spanish in 2008;
- Misleading investment advice has previously coexisted with genuine training and support proposals;
- The vast majority of traders incurs losses and this data has been public for about five years;
The CNMV and social media
It goes without saying that the supervisor constantly executes its investor protection mission, which we have already discussed, by virtue of which it can issue warnings to the public. However, their actions are often targeted at entities that perform investment services, although there are not few cases of fines to individuals -recently to the journalist of ‘El Confidencial’, Agustín Marco– when, for example, they have made use of privileged information to make a profit. Legal sources confirm that there are no records of warnings or interventions in investment bloggers’ forums or communities;
In fact, even the case of the warning to the footballer Andrés Iniesta by the advertising of the crypto-asset platform Binance in its social media, at the end of November 2021, there is no similar performance in living memory, according to the same sources; This gesture resulted in the publication of a Circular on crypto-asset advertising submitted as an investment object, in January 2022, which entered into force in February; And with it, the CNMV was a pioneer among financial market authorities worldwide;
Months later, on 24 October, the CNMV issued the unprecedented communiqué on the review of the social media activity of the influencers in the financial sector, to avoid “conflict and unfair competition with regulated entities that issue recommendations”, according to legal experts consulted. In this sense, these sources indicate that the regulator is indifferent to the medium used to disseminate these messages, although they recognise that it blurs the boundary between the activity of professionals and freedom of expression.
Influencer: advertising or content?
Other experts consider this scrutiny to be a “good thing”, such as Alberto Muñoz, vice-dean of Academic Organisation at the UNED; “Many times the so-calledinfluencers can convey the wrong messages, even out of sheer ignorance of the markets”. At other times, they are “misleading or, worse, biased by their own interests”, as they often have arrangements with brokers and go so far as to “incite account opening and encourage trading, which can be negative for certain types of investor”;
Brokers are becoming increasingly bold in their social media practices in order to attract clients; There are more than a few cases of these influencers knowingly publishing scams or misleading information, such as…; the repentant Ben Armstrongone of the youtubers with a crypto-themed channel with the most followers ‘BitBoy Cripto’who acknowledged accepting payments from crypto companies to promote his new products to his audience of subscribers; Last autumn, news also emerged of the U.S. SEC fining Kim Kardashian $1.3 million, afterconcealed a charge for promoting a cryptocurrency.
Retail investors, social networks and lack of financial education
At the same time, the emergence of new social platforms has led many gurus and trainers “to adapt their messages to the language of the new channels, which means that these interactions with audiences tend towards simplification and superficiality“explains Pere Monguió, head of content at FXStreet.
In turn, “it has made them mainstream, as they have transcended their traditional communities to reach a mainstream audience,” he argues, who are financially uneducated, and easily succumb to speculative activities driven by YOLO (you only live once). “Social mediainfluencer perhaps has less knowledgeable or less experienced than the blogger, talk-show host or columnist before; But it beats them all in its ability to synthesise messages and connect with its audience,” he says;
All of the above gives the CNMV reason to “try to put things in order”, Muñoz says, although “it may have arrived late, but the law always seems to lag behind technological advances”, he regrets;
In fact, the CNMV communiqué was published one year after the ESMA statement on investment recommendations on social networks. It specified that “dissemination channels can be analyst reports, articles, traditional media or even social media”, providing scope for expanding the framework for action by European supervisors;
The awakening of the force… of retail investors
Internal market sources consulted, however, approach this complex issue from another point of view; Turning to the question of why the CNMV has not taken earlier or even more severe measures, they claim that the entity maintains a moderate concern on the public activity of the investment influencers , as the real focus of the regulator lies in another derivative of the whole phenomenon we have been analysing;
Let’s go back to the origin, to the Gamestop case; The ability of a group of retail investors to coordinate to beat the big Wall Street hedge funds to the punch, through a sub-forum onReddit, WallStreetBets, was a point of no return in financial markets. It triggered a phenomenon of orchestrated trades in other securities known as meme stocks that traders made viral through these forums, as well as other social platforms; And it showed the power of organised small investors to turn the tables in their favour, something that frightened institutional traders and the authorities;
The epicness of the whole story is a new twist on the eternal David versus Goliath; The investment giants received a real blow that put the spotlight on this ecosystem, which has already been explained in detail, and which had more or less passed under the radar; But those communities of bloggers had become more sophisticated and had almost doubled in size. Retailers’ market share in the Spanish market in 2020 was up to 7.7% and 6.7% in 2021, compared to just over 4% in 2019;
Retail investors and the democratisation of trading
In addition, they were able to organising and making joint decisions as activist investors. This new reality is keeping regulators and institutional traders on their toes, keeping a close eye on the entire digital information-sharing infrastructure that the retail investor movement uses to communicate through platforms such as Telegram – where there are investment channels with thousands of members -, social networks and geographies;
Thus, what really keeps market supervisors on their toes is whether orchestrated episodes of stock-pushing are occurring, to the benefit of the retail community as a whole, or of an isolated sector that engages in a practice ofpump and dump, and destabilise the market; Or maybe what really keeps them awake at night is the reversal of what they consider to be the natural order of the market?
All of the above leads us to conclude that intervention in the influencers and social media is just the tip of the iceberg in a kind of cold war between the institutional investment industry and the democratisation of trading. We are sure to see more hostilities between the two sides in the future, if the market conditions of 2022 and 2023 do not kill the appetite of the individual traders. And we are concerned that the boundaries of freedom of expression and even privacy continue to be stretched; We will stay tuned;