GameStop and the Reemergence of the Retail Investor
U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 22-16
Boston University Law Review, Forthcoming
European Corporate Governance Institute - Law Working Paper No. 637/2022
48 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2022 Last revised: 11 Apr 2022
Date Written: February 8, 2022
The GameStop trading frenzy in January 2021 was perhaps the highest profile example of the reemergence of capital market participation by retail investors, a marked shift from the growing domination of those markets by large institutional investors. Some commentators have greeted retail investing, which has been fueled by app-based brokerage accounts and social media, with alarm and called for regulatory reform. The goals of such reforms are twofold. First, critics argue that retail investors need greater protection from the risks of investing in the stock market. Second, they argue that the stock market, in term, needs protection from retail investors.
This Article challenges calls for broad-based regulatory reform. It argues that, although retail investing is likely to impact the capital markets, claims about the harms from increased retail investing are overstated. More importantly, the debate overlooks potential benefits from retail investing both to investors themselves and the capital markets. Regulators should not be clamping down on the conditions such as commission-free trading, gamified trading platforms, and the expanded use of social media, that have enabled a generation of new investors to participate in the capital markets. These innovations, through their ability to facilitate direct market participation by retail investors have the potential to democratize the capital markets and increase the connections between ordinary citizens and U.S. businesses. Regulators should instead be focusing on how to facilitate the effectiveness of that process.
The Article defends the reemergence of the retail investor and its potential promise in enabling citizen capitalism – providing ordinary citizens with a stake in the nation’s productivity while, at the same time, increasing the accountability of those businesses to societal interests. It explains that retail investment can reduce the increasing problematic power of institutional intermediaries. It also holds the possibility of increasing corporate consideration of stakeholder interests without the need for formal structural changes or heavy-handed regulation.
Critically, however, effective citizen capitalism requires retail shareholders to participate in the capital markets on an informed basis. Although the extent to which the GameStop frenzy reflected rational investing behavior is questionable, its effect has been to draw retail investors to the market, and there is evidence that retail investment and engagement will both continue and evolve. The Article identifies opportunities to improve the retail investing experience, including greater oversight of sources of investment information, limiting the manipulative use by brokers of customer information, and the extension of fintech innovation to mechanisms for improving financial literacy. Attention to these concerns, rather than heavy-handed efforts to discourage retail investing, will increase the effectiveness of the retail investor.
Keywords: Securities law & regulation, retail investing, app-based trading platforms, social media, fintech, financial literacy, law & economics, consumer protection, GameStop, meme stocks
JEL Classification: D14, D18, G23, G28, G53, K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation