Meme trades and bored retail investors have laid the groundwork for a bumper tech listing by Robinhood. Claims that the trading app ruined its reputation forever by shutting down trading of GameStop and other stocks popular with traders on a Reddit forum are overblown. Rising user numbers matter more.
Notoriety is proving an effective form of customer acquisition. A JMP Securities analyst used SimilarWeb data to estimate that Robinhood was downloaded more than 1m times in the space of three days last week — including hundreds of thousands of downloads after it stopped GameStop trading. This is equal to about a tenth of the 13m users Robinhood reported last spring.
Some angry users have been giving Robinhood one star on app store ratings. That has proved no deterrent to wannabe Masters of the Universe. Nor has the theory that Robinhood’s actions were done to protect hedge funds. The company’s explanation is more quotidian: clearing houses demanded more collateral as the jump in activity increased deposit requirements. Raising $3.4bn in convertible debt allowed it to reinstate trading and may provide a cushion for future clearing emergencies. A listing would provide even more.
The Menlo Park company, valued at $11.7bn last year, has weathered knocks to its reputation before. It likes to say its origin story is linked to the Occupy Wall Street protests, though it was founded two years afterwards. Such claims are tarnished by the volume of revenues derived from order flows sold to market makers. It has already paid $65m to settle allegations that it misled users about how it makes money.
As long as the retail trading boom lasts, this will not matter. Look at Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets forum, which had less than 2m members at the start of the year and now has more than 8m (though some may be bots). Robinhood no longer stands out for free trades — a feature also available from Charles Schwab and ETrade. But its simple design encourages higher trading volume.
A few things could put a damper on Robinhood joining public markets. Regulators may clamp down on its ability to put customers in margin accounts, making it harder for Robinhood to make money by lending out shares. GameStop investors may cash out, leading the price to fall and scaring off new users. Scarier still — Reddit traders might one day decide to make Robinhood itself a target.
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