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Options are contracts that allow investors to buy or sell a stock at a specified price, either on or until a specified expiration date. They have become increasingly popular with small investors in recent years, as brokerages have made it cheaper and easier to trade them.
Options come in two flavors:
call options, which confer the right to buy shares under specified terms, and put options that confer the right to sell them. Calls are especially popular with the WallStreetBets crowd because buying them is a cheap way to bet that a stock will rise
Take the market action on Tuesday, for instance. GameStop closed at $147.98 a share. At that moment, call options that let investors buy GameStop shares at $200 apiece by Friday were trading for about $19 a share—a fraction of the cost of an actual share. If you bought such an option and GameStop rallied, the price of your option would surge, and you could likely sell it for a quick profit. If you owned actual GameStop shares, you would benefit from the rally too, but you likely wouldn’t get as big of a return as you would with the calls.
Alternatively, using options can help reduce risk for investors. For instance, if you buy GameStop shares, you can protect your portfolio by buying put options that let you sell GameStop at, say, $100 a share. That way, if GameStop falls below $100 you can exercise the put options, offsetting your losses on the shares themselves.
Market makers aren’t in the business of placing long-term bets on companies’ stock prices. So when such a firm sells you a GameStop call option, the market maker generally hedges that risk through a separate trade. Often, it will buy shares of GameStop.
In options lingo, this is called delta hedging, and it is why heavy buying of call options can push up the price of the underlying stock. Moreover, as the stock’s price approaches the level at which call options can be exercised—$200 in the above GameStop example—market makers may step up their purchases of stock to maintain a neutral position
Online forums like Reddit’s WallStreetBets are full of traders boasting that they are beating up the big investors who normally control the market. It is an ironic twist, or a sign of their lack of understanding, that they equate short sellers with the Wall Street establishment.
Short sellers are fringe players who go after companies and institutions the rest of the financial world is largely backing. They often make bets based on deep research, sometimes exposing fraud. Recent successes include firms like Nikola Corp. , Wirecard AG and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.
Current and former regulators say that authorities do have means to crack down on online groups that band together to pump stocks. There are several cases where authorities have successfully won cases against groups of investors that have acted together online to manipulate a stock’s price. In most cases, they have targeted those that spread false information online.
It is unclear whether what is happening online now could be considered manipulation. Many of the posters are simply announcing their intention to drive a stock higher, and not attempting to deceive other investors by making false claims.
The current and former regulators say that there are mechanisms for the SEC to quickly limit some of this activity. Much like when the SEC banned short selling in hundreds of companies at the height of the financial crisis, it can take emergency measures that would make it harder to trade options, which many traders are using to juice their returns and drive the stock higher.
The hope of getting rich is only part of what is inflating the bubble. Mr. Kindleberger argued that speculative manias needed innovative sources of financing, and the private traders on r/WSB have one: the shift last year to make trading in options free on Robinhood and several other platforms.
Options, like other derivatives, allow traders to use implied leverage to boost their bets, similar to borrowing money. In the same way that Japan’s bubble in the 1980s was fueled by cheap mortgages and low Federal Reserve rates combined with collateralized debt obligations to support the housing bubble of the 2000s, the bubble in GameStop is aided by an increase in the money supply of private stock traders.