A Tale of Caution

January 31, 2021

by Steve Stofka

The trading in GameStop (GME) has spurred romantic visions; a mob of peasants has stormed the castle and the nobles have fled! Huzzah! This love of the romantic convinced a bunch of peasants to storm the Capitol on January 6th. We are human beings; we love stories. The truth is less appealing or ordinary.

At a press conferences this week, the well-prepared and even-tempered White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, was asked if President Biden planned to speak to the issue of the volatile trading in GameStop (GME). She said that it was a new age; the President was not going to speak to issues he had no expertise in. Imagine that. We will miss the enjoyment of watching former President Trump standing in the White House driveway and opining to reporters on every topic under the sun.

Reporter: “Mr. President, what’s your source on that?”

Mr. Trump: “My mind. I have a very smart mind.”

Without the daily source of ridicule that Mr. Trump provided, comedians are having to write new material.

But I digress. GameStop. Twenty-five years ago, internet stocks were taking off. Message boards at AOL, CompuServe and others lit up with stories of “Ten baggers,” the holy grail of stock investing. Buy a stock for a $1 and watch it rise to $10. Those in Bitcoin have experienced the heady feeling.

That romance incentivized peasants to join the Crusades; there was gold in Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem. Thousands poured into the California gold fields in the hopes of striking it rich. The people who get rich are the ones selling pickaxes and panning tools to the miners. The gold is not in the hills but in the people digging up the hills.

On message boards in the 1990s we learned about options. Instead of buying Microsoft stock, an investor can buy options to buy Microsoft’s stock. If Microsoft’s stock is selling for $25, it costs $2500 to buy a 100 shares, the minimum lot. At that time, buying less than a 100 shares cost a lot more in commissions. If an option were selling for $1, an investor could buy 2500 options! If the price went up $5 you could quintuple your money. Imagine making $10,000 in a few weeks.

People quit their jobs to day trade. The successful ones were cautious, taking profits quickly, not taking too many risks. Someone with a family to feed and rent to pay must be responsible. A modestly successful trader can convince themselves that they have a well-balanced strategy.

About a year before the internet stock bubble blew up, someone posted a rather long post on a message board. Since he was in the options business, a family member had asked him for his advice. Aware for the first time that inexperienced retail traders were taking positions, he offered his advice, which I will paraphrase. A few points stuck with me.

Options are tools. 94% of options trades expire worthless. Professional traders use options like car insurance. Yes, there are some companies who take risks, but most of those in the business use options to mitigate risk.

Understand that multi-national companies pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into news gathering, sophisticated computers and programming by very smart people to develop and deploy options strategies. They are on the other side of the trade.

A retail trader may get lucky. The prospects for Company A improve, the stock goes up and the trader makes money. A company using options aims to make money whether the prospects for Company A improve or deteriorate. A successful racetrack makes money no matter what horse wins.

Gamblers at a racetrack can rush the window in the closing moments before a race begins and cause the track to lose money on that race because the track doesn’t have the time to change the odds to layoff the bets. With the advent of the internet, a group of retail options traders could do the same with a hedge fund, who can’t lay off the bets fast enough. It could be done but it would be difficult.

25 years later, it has become much easier for gamblers to rush the betting window. The success of those traders will no doubt inspire others to try the same strategy. An industry which uses options to mitigate risk on trillions of dollars will not let a few retail traders upset that market for long, so don’t gamble with the rent money.

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Photo by Kay on Unsplash

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