No, There's No Reason to Feel Sorry for Robinhood
As the dust settles following the GameStop frenzy in late January, it is clear that one of the biggest losers in the controversy in Robinhood. Robinhood is a trading app that markets itself as a platform for ordinary retail investors seeking to buy and sell securities without the cost of an expensive broker. Or, more romantically, Robinhood claims it has "democratized" investing.
But things didn't play out that way for the company. As buying of GameStop shares intensified in January 28, Robinhood (among other brokerages) halted the buying of GameStop (and some other shares, such as AMC) citing an inability to post sufficient collateral at clearinghouses. This is how a recent Forbes article summed it up:
With the ability to easily buy more and more stocks using Robinhood’s app, the pile-on became a gold rush, as more speculators flooded to the platform to get “in” on the bounty. News about the booming GameStop and AMC stocks spread far and wide.
That’s where the trouble started.
Robinhood doesn’t directly execute customer trades.
Instead, it directs the transactions through a clearinghouse, which pays for the trades as the information it gleans lets it more effectively direct its own trading decisions.
Buyers and sellers are quickly matched digitally. However, the “settlement” of the trade—the actual transfer of payment and shares between parties—typically takes two days after the transaction. So clearinghouses require brokers, such as Robinhood, to have enough money on deposit to ensure that a trade can clear—even if the broker is waiting for a separate payment from a client to finish processing.
Given high demand for the shorted stocks and the climbing prices, Robinhood’s deposit requirements suddenly jumped ten-fold, according to a company blog post.
So Robinhood “put temporary buying restrictions in place on a small number of securities that the clearinghouses had raised their deposit requirements on.”
The fact that this move also helped billionaire short sellers at hedge funds was not lost on the general public, and the many immediately began to accuse Robinhood of intervening to help Wall Street oligarchs at the expense of ordinary investors.
Was this the case?
It doesn't matter all that much. What matters is that Robinhood was unable or unwilling to serve its customers in the way that Robinhood claimed it always would.
According to Robinhood's narrative, its management had no other choice. And this has led some commentators to defend Robinhood, claiming that it was a victim of circumstance and it wasn't really conspiring against ordinary investors.
But so what?
Even if Robinhood was being perfectly honest with everyone, the fact that it had to cut off its own customers from promised services reveals to us that Robinhood's management is at the very least incompetent and was unable to plan for future events which would have been anticipated by truly insightful or competent entrepreneurs.
The company's ineptitude was showcased in a recent discussion between Rob Portnoy and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev. Tenev bragged that the company's block on further GameStop purchases meant "we were able to protect the firm." But Portnoy correctly pointed out that if "protecting the firm" means "screwing over" the customers, there's something very wrong going on over at Robinhood. We have a word for "protecting the firm" by harming customers. It's "exploitation," or "ripping people off." In response, Tenev threw out some bromides about how "if the market breaks down" they can't serve their customers. This assumes, of course, that letting investors buy what they want constitutes a "breakdown" in the marketplace. That's a rather bizarre assertion. Ultimately, even if we assume Robinhood was in no way conspiring against anyone, the fact remains that—as pointed out on CNBC—Robinhood put itself in a scenario it should not have put itself in.
In other words, doing business with Robinhood now is an "enter at your own risk" sort of proposition. It's clear that in spite of all of Robinhood's claims about offering the everyman a way to participate in the markets, investors who do business with Robinhood can't trust that it will actually deliver the services it claims it will deliver.
That's as good a reason as any to forever ditch any company that acts with such ineptitude in giving the customer what he or she wants.