How young traders are occupying Wall Street

A legion of young people - mainly male - have been pouring into digital trading floors in recent years. PHOTO: REUTERS

(NYTIMES) - Wisconsin high school senior Zane Bannink said he has used the Robinhood stock trading app since turning 18 two months ago. So far, he's made over US$800 (S$1,070).

Nineteen-year-old Jude Folmar, a college student in Dallas, said he's been trading stocks since he was 13 under a custodial account his grand-aunt helped him set up. He has earned over US$22,000.

And 21-year-old Liam Gavaghan, a university student in Kingston, Ontario, started trading about six weeks ago. He now spends hours scanning Reddit message boards focused on finance and talking to his friends about potential trades in a Discord voice chat room.

He has made more than US$9,000 on an initial investment of roughly US$1,900 - money that he received as part of Canada's Covid-19 stimulus relief package.

"It's risky as hell," Mr Gavaghan said about trading stocks. "But holy cow, it's almost like getting a high."

In the world of high-stakes finance, these three entrants might have once been outliers. No longer.

They are part of a legion of young people - mainly male - pouring into digital trading floors in recent years, raised on social media and eager to teach themselves about stocks and trade quickly via apps catering to Generation Z.

In just a few short weeks, this new cohort of retail investors has completely upended some of the most professional traders by coordinating over social media, forums and chat rooms to trade shares of GameStop, sending the stock price for the video game company skyrocketing recently while leaving a number of sophisticated short-sellers holding the bag.

Their motivations run the gamut: Many are unapologetic, cash-seeking capitalists. Some consider themselves idealists, would-be 99 per centers who were too young to occupy Wall Street in the movement's heyday.

What many of them have in common is that they buy and sell equities regularly, right from their smartphones, while posting their gains, or "tendies", to online forums, all out in the open for their peers to see. They often view the trading as a sort of video game, similar to chasing a new high score on a puzzle app or accumulating likes on an Instagram post.

Numerous Wall Street analysts had railed against these traders, arguing that they had made a mockery of the markets. The blowback against them has even made for strange bedfellows in Washington. Politicians on both sides of the aisle united briefly in their contempt for Wall Street's response to the young traders.

All the while, the band of misfit traders continued laughing - all the way to their digital banks.

The young traders are propelled, and empowered, by technology. Companies like Robinhood, a trading app aimed specifically at market newbies, advertise across social platforms, enticing young users with no transaction fees, immediate access to instant deposits and a fun, user-friendly interface. This resulted in Robinhood raising more than US$1 billion to grapple with an extraordinarily high volume of trading.

And they turn to online communities to talk stocks and strategies with one another, on platforms like Discord and Reddit. The foul-mouthed, meme-heavy group debates stocks and discusses trades in a way that feels native to many high school and college students.

The demographics of the Reddit forum, which now has more than six million people, are broad and encompass out-of-work boomers, earnest millennials and hyper-online children. However, the camaraderie in the community is something that many young traders said they were drawn to.

The forum has its own language. They refer to winnings as "tendies", and it's also customary to celebrate a large gain by dining on chicken tenders. And they praise those who have so-called diamond hands, meaning they hold their stock or continue to invest even when the stock price dips.

Having diamond hands is seen as a form of bravery, even if it sometimes appears irrational, and investors celebrate such resolve with diamond and hand emojis in their comments.

Conversely, having "paper hands" is seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice, and indicates a willingness to fold or sell stock after a dip. All of this in-crowd lingo spills across the Web to YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and more, becoming memes within memes.

Pittsburgh college student Louis Weimer, 20, signed up for Robinhood as soon as he turned 18, like many of his peers. He liked that it didn't charge huge fees and allowed him to trade small amounts of stocks, key for a college student on a small budget.

He put in US$200 that he'd amassed from working at a grocery store and bought stocks in companies that he recognised, like Apple and Microsoft.

Like many traders his age, Mr Weimer has never been taught anything formally about the stock market. His information is gleaned from the Internet and conversations online. He learns through watching YouTube videos on how to diversify a portfolio or when to time a stock buy.

Mr Bannink said he had friends who had been trading throughout high school under their parents' accounts, posting about wins and losses to Snapchat and Instagram, and he wanted in on the action.

With Robinhood, "you're able to put it on your homescreen and flip between Instagram and Snapchat; it doesn't feel as serious as it used to", he said. "It's just an app you open up on your phone, there are graphs and numbers, and it's easy to understand and learn really quickly."

Mr Folmar said many minors had found ways to bypass the age restrictions on the trading apps. "It's very easy to get past that 18-year-old requirement," he said. "You can take a picture of your mom's or dad's Social Security card and set up an account."

Many young traders get their information from video app TikTok, where financial advice and stock trading tips often go viral, reaching tens of millions of users.

Mr Bannink said traders like him were different from day traders of the past. Losing all your money, after all, stings much less if your general lifestyle doesn't change and you're still living at your parents' house. "We're more of a fearless group of traders," he said.

Although most Gen Z traders were too young to remember many details of the 2008 financial crisis, they did witness the impact of it on their families. Some saw their parents lose their job or their house, and have watched those older than them struggle for years to make ends meet. They are hyper aware of income inequality and the disparities in access to wealth in the United States.

"Everyone who is my age has grown up with some different type of understanding of money because of 2008," Mr Weimer said. He said he and others his age felt frustrated that they weren't ever given a chance to even get a leg up.

"It should be an even playing field," he said. "Anyone can do his or her own research, it's all fair game, so why should the system be so favourable to people who have more money?"

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.