In the middle of a pandemic and slow economic recovery, Americans think they’ve identified their Wall Street villain: hedge funds.
Their nemesis is summed up in a few searing images: a hedge fund manager who makes millions betting that the subprime mortgage market will collapse, without warning them. Or another relaxing on a yacht as the economy tanks.
Years of anger culminated late last month when a group of angry small-time investors on Reddit took on a few of those firms in the GameStop “short squeeze” frenzy. That spurred millions of others to join in, as their effort to drive up the price of a stock perceived as undervalued soon shifted to a campaign to “Stick it to Wall Street.” They used the “squeeze” to rally the share price and make profits for themselves while forcing the hedge funds who had bet it would fall to buy it to prevent greater losses.
What are these funds, and where does this resentment come from?
Hedge funds, known for using higher risk investing strategies, are private investment vehicles that typically wealthy individuals use to get higher returns. They control more than $3 trillion in assets globally. They’ve angered many Americans by gutting companies such as former American retail icon Sears, causing layoffs and engaging in questionable financial practices that contributed to the near collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, experts say.
“Most people see it as guys in suits looking down their nose at you,” says Adam Bixler, 28, an active user on the WallStreetBets Reddit forum, whose members led the charge against the funds. “How I feel is probably how a lot of people feel when thinking about the financial crisis and the massive wealth inequality that exists in this country.”
Radio Shack, Toys ‘R’ Us and Payless ShoeSource, along with mall-based retailers such as the Limited, Wet Seal, Claire’s and Aeropostale faced further financial woes after hedge funds and private equity firms loaded them up with debt.
“The idea that you can crack open a hedge fund like a piñata and redistribute all this money to people in the form of a short squeeze is very appealing,” says Bixler, who lives in Boonton, New Jersey, and works as a product manager for a company that makes software and tools for the advertising industry. “These are the stimulus checks that everyone wanted.”
Proponents of hedge funds say the firms identify and support distressed industries such as retailers and newspapers. These funds are owned by groups of big investors pooling the savings of millions of unionized workers, such as teachers and firefighters, who count on hedge funds to grow and protect their nest eggs.
Even so, hedge funds are viewed as vultures by many Americans.
Kaysha Apodaca, an emergency room nurse in Dallas, was furious last summer when she lost thousands of dollars after CytoDyn, a biotechnology company she owns, was hammered following a negative report from a “short selling” research firm, about one of CytroDyn’s drugs in clinical trials. The post with the research was later pulled.
This year, Apodaca thought she missed the opportunity to jump in and buy GameStop or AMC, so she supported the Reddit campaign against hedge funds by investing a few thousand dollars into shares of Nokia, another beaten-down stock discussed on the forum.
“I hate hedge funds. Even if this goes to zero, I’m OK with it. I’m not selling, just to prove a point,” Apodaca said. “Hedge funds have unfairly made money off retail investors for years. Now they’re getting a taste of their own medicine.”
For Iris Findlay of Orlando, Florida, joining the movement was a way for Americans to show their strength in numbers.
“I’m definitely not OK that there are so many billionaires hoarding their wealth while people are struggling, especially during the pandemic,” said Findlay, 31, who is disabled and retired from the Air Force.
A large portion of hedge-fund assets are owned by institutional investors, such as pension funds and endowments. Hedge fund research has been critical in exposing an array of accounting fraud scandals in recent decades, including the one involving energy firm Enron.
“Hedge funds do play a very important role in the financial ecosystem, but at the same time, they have a PR problem,” says Andrew Lo, a finance professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.
They are an easy target, experts say, because some high-profile managers’ massive wealth offends Americans who struggle to make ends meet.
Michael Burry, founder of Scion Asset Management, is an investor whose billion-dollar bet against the housing market was chronicled in Michael Lewis’ book “The Big Short.” He personally collected $100 million and made $750 million in profits for his investors.
These managers “are seen as multibillionaires that really don’t care about the public good and are focused on enriching themselves and their investors,” Lo says. “But I think that’s a caricature, especially given that hedge funds now have become much more institutionalized as pension funds and endowments are investing in these financial vehicles.”
Who do Americans blame?
When asked who was the “most in the wrong” in the trading mania that set off one of the biggest short squeezes in history, nearly half of Americans polled said it was either hedge funds (27%) or online brokerage Robinhood (22%), according to a Harris Poll survey conducted Jan 29-31 that was given to USA TODAY exclusively.
Just 8% said it was the Reddit retail investors on the r/WallStreetBets forum, who angered hedge funds that had bet GameStop’s stock would remain low. The small-time investors used the forum to help drive up the prices for shares such as GameStop, theater chain AMC Entertainment and several other companies.
Many respondents were angry that hedge funds were shorting stocks – betting that the share prices would fall – of companies that average people use and love, according to John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll.
“This wasn’t just an attack on a few weak companies,” Gerzema says. “These are companies that are a part of middle-class America and ordinary people’s lives.”