Money is fake. We agree on that much, right?
It’s hard to look at who’s rich or not — or the economic bubbles, crashes and bailouts of the past 20 years — and conclude that currency is anything but a ghost in the machine, some intangible medium that fluctuates independent of reality. That billionaires have added roughly a trillion dollars to their fortunes during the pandemic, with the market soaring against historic job losses, yet the government can’t send everyone else a measly $2,000 to stay afloat has put incredible stress on the illusion of capitalism as a straightforward ladder. Money’s traditional narrative is fraying at the seams.
Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets — a gung-ho investment community billed as 4chan at a Bloomberg data terminal — is now seen as a prime exploiter of financial absurdism. As major hedge funds attempt to short companies like GameStop, Bed Bath & Beyond, Blackberry and AMC Entertainment, which are closing locations and trending toward bankruptcy, the redditors are instead driving the stock prices up, wiping out any profit the big firms could have made off a collapse. “I’ve never seen the guns like this,” Wall Street pundit Jim Cramer said on Monday. “They can break shorts.” He later added that “the mechanics of the market are breaking down,” and expressed his frustration with such tactics, wondering if they are indeed protected by free speech, as members of WSB claim. “But it doesn’t matter what I think,” he admitted.
For years, experts and trade publications have condescended to this crowd as anarchic amateurs who don’t understand the forces they’re playing with. The WSB reply is, more or less: I know you are, but what am I? At the heart of this forum is a refusal to accept that the old and powerful institutions have any more right to wheel and deal in this space. And while Barron’s will continue to report that the brick-and-mortar retailer GameStop is unlikely to realize a comeback to justify its inflated market cap, some have already reaped their windfalls. A 28-year-old redditor who started buying GME shares in November made $80,000 and paid off the rest of his student loans in a lump sum, telling Yahoo! Money he had no faith that the Biden administration “is going to do anything about student debt.”
Unable to afford homes, unwilling to let money sit in low-interest savings accounts and unconvinced they’ll ever have a worthwhile nest egg if they don’t take an extreme leap of faith, these millennials are shouting “YOLO” and staking positions that Adam Sandler’s compulsive gambler from Uncut Gems would find too risky. What’s even scarier to the old guard is that the insurgents would happily take a loss to hurt them worse.
You can read this disruption as a form of trolling, and the plentiful niche memes on r/wallstreetbets, along with the casual use of slurs, confirm a robust shitposting culture. Impressive returns are often called “tendies,” in a reference to a bit of 4chan lore around a man-child character who demands his mother serve him chicken tenders, which doubles as an allusion to “tender” in finance jargon, meaning a bid, price, offer or estimate. But surely as edgelord nihilist shitposting fed into reactionary trends and misinformation campaigns that had profound consequences in U.S. politics, the irreverent, Joker-fied strategies of WSB are causing ripples too significant for the investor class to ignore.
Trying to thwart them, or condemn them as destructive schemers, is quite awkward when the legacy of the financial sector is corruption, fraud, backstabbing and volatility. The redditors are only responding to the incentives carved into the system by decades of deregulation and cyclical catastrophe, and there is no coherent way to argue that they are behaving improperly compared to the ultra-rich. If the “victims” are guys who line their pockets as another industry bites the dust, can you feel sorry for them?
If anything, WSB has annihilated the veneer of white-collar respectability that obscures the habits of predation and sometimes criminal conduct familiar to asset management. That’s potentially more destabilizing to Wall Street than an occasional short squeeze as we’re seeing with GameStop. It tells people they don’t have to be intimidated by a lot of technical language, then cowed into trusting professionals to invest and trade on their behalf with little oversight.
The establishment keeps lamenting the “stupidity” of WSB’s enthusiasm for “rocket ships to the moon” fueled by nothing but their own momentum, yet they miss that such stupidity — the memes and tendies, the shitposting, double-daring and YOLOing — is what make the movement accessible and exciting to those who have felt shut out from the money machine because they couldn’t intern at Morgan Stanley. Some will lose, but they have the courage to put skin in the game, whereas for the corporate elite, there’s always a bailout around the corner.
Each time they’re chided by a millionaire for treating the economy like a casino, the WSB subreddit doubles down on that exact attitude. It is a casino, and they’re at the roulette wheel, letting everything ride on red. In the way of all shitpost subculture, the meme has become a living philosophy, one you ignore at your peril, since it creates and eliminates vast wealth in the blink of an eye. And these cowboys aren’t just concerned with the bottom line: They bring resentment and spite, a commitment to the bit that works because it overrides the “common sense” others play by.
Of course it’s crazy to the fat cats who never fought as the underdog, or had to locate the unexpected advantage — and this means they’re less prepared to navigate the new normal. You can never write off internet jokes. Half the time, they’re serious business.