If you haven’t heard about the GME stock saga by now you’ve been living under a rock. Which would be a great place to hang out and let the 2020 and 2021 craziness blow on by. For those that don’t know, or need a refresher, Gamestop, yes, the brick and mortar spot in the mall that sells video games, has become one of the hottest, most mentioned stocks of 2021. Is this because of Gamestop’s business fundamentals? No, not really. Gamestop (GME) is hot because hedge funds bet against the company’s performance and shorted the stock to hell. If you already know this you can skip ahead six paragraphs to learn about how millions of apes are still HODLing GME. For those that don’t know what the hell that sentence means, read on from here.
What does it mean to short a stock? Usually when you buy a share in a company, you do it because you think you can sell it for more money in the future. If you think a company’s stock is going to depreciate in value, you can do the opposite and short it. To short a stock, you borrow shares of a company and sell those shares at the current price. As the price of that share falls later on, you can purchase back the share at the lower price and pocket the difference. As opposed to say, buying a house, where you want to buy low, renovate and sell high, shorting is selling high hoping to buy low later on.
The rub of shorting and selling early is that if the price of the stock increases over time rather than decreases, you have to pay the difference to “cover the short” and thus lose money. You can delay purchasing back the stocks by paying interest, like a loan, but eventually and inevitably, the short position must be covered. Sometimes, the government/regulatory agencies will intervene and mandate that all short positions must be covered immediately meaning the borrower is not given the gift of time to allow that stock value to depreciate and turn a profit on their short.
The thought process for hedge funds was simple, brick and mortar stores were failing and Gamestop was losing in an increasingly digital economy so the hedge funds piled on and took on massive short positions on GME stock. The hedge fund’s felt they couldn’t lose. Do you follow? Good. You are smart. You have a wrinkly brain.
Enter stage left, Keith Gill. A financial advisor with a penchant for great headbands and memes. Keith spots the short and starts to ring the bell on Reddit posting his first video to YouTube on July 27, 2020, when Gamestop was valued at $4 a share. Gill outlined that if enough people buy GME and hold (or “HODL”) the investors who shorted GME would get squeezed when they are forced to buy back the stock because they would have to pay whatever the price the stock rises to. For the under-rock dwellers, Reddit is the front page of the internet and sort of like a giant message board from the 90s with a decent user interface. Gill, who of course goes by DeepF**kingValue on Reddit or RoaringKitty on Twitter, gained a massive following of people who see the opportunity to turn a profit and stick it to the hedge funds (hedgies) who would be forced to buy the stock back at whatever price they wanted so long as they continued to HODL. You may have heard the term Diamond Hands, this means holding the stock rather than letting your emotions get the better of you and selling, which would mean you have paper hands.
GME began to pick up momentum, shooting up and peaking at $483.00 on January 28, 2021, which is likely when you heard some rumblings about GME in the news, and then GME stock dropped down to the ~$40 range in February, which is when mainstream coverage of GME sort of dribbled away. For most people, they thought the GME saga was over, but in many ways…it was really just getting started.
What most people do not realize is that there are hundreds of thousands, likely millions, of GME stockholders who have been HODLing this whole time. Keith Gill himself doubled down heavily on April 16, 2021. Gill exercised options, don’t worry if you don’t know what this means, and purchased another 50,000 GME shares at a price of $12 and instead of selling 500 call options (which would have made him 7 million bucks) Keith doubled down and raised his stake in GME to 200,000 shares, worth about 35 million right now.
Since Gill doubled down, the GME HODLing community has only grown and become more fervent, developing a society (…or cult?), where they identify as apes or ants (ants are Korean apes, yes, Korea has also entered the chat) and share memes and support. Many of the apes have been HODLing GME since well before the January peak and did not sell in January, believing that it was a false squeeze and that the true squeeze, or MOASS, Mother of All Short Squeezes, was still on the horizon.
The GME boards and communities have developed their own language, culture, customs, and belief systems. Some apes post about how after the squeeze they are going to pay off the medical debt of friends and family. Some apes post about how they want to help society at large and start various charities. Most talk about how much they hate hedgies and how broken our financial system is. Many, many, many memes are shared. And while there is an incredible amount of self-deprecating humor and the use of words that make our woke 2021 brains shudder to read at times, at the core of the movement is the idea that anyone can be an ape if they are willing to actively engage in the stock market in a way that delays short term gratification in order to upset the status quo — and, in some but not all instances, make outsize profits in the long term by doing so.
So, what is an ape exactly? The term ape is actually deceptively over encompassing. It is easier to characterize an ape by describing what they are NOT. An ape is a person, typically male, who in a broad sense is not happy with the current world order, and in a specific sense is deeply unhappy with the current allocation of capital in western stock markets — notably American securities markets. They are also almost uniformly individuals who feel disenfranchised by the state of affairs in 2021 and derive a sense of agency and empowerment through their acceptance of the fact that the performance of financial markets is no longer tied to reality. In embracing this disconnect from reality and fairness, they have taken matters into their own hands by taking long positions (i.e. betting on the success of a company) on companies that any layperson would say are in terrible shape.
One of the most immediately apparent paradoxes of this allegedly nihilistic position is that in making targeted bets against a greedy and callous financial system that they view to be rigged, their de facto leader has literally earned millions of dollars of profits through investing in a company that provides almost no value to its shareholders or even to society at large. The official position of the apes is that if enough apes throw enough stones at the financial machine that has been rigged against them, they may break its gears fully. The intellectual honesty of this position varies from one ape to another, and like all mass revolutionary movements is motivated by its share of self-serving rhetoric but the core of the idea remains important. Large hedge funds that are able to rapidly deploy huge amounts of capital are able to act with impunity, therefore large groups of individuals (apes) should similarly be able to do as they please. The apes have formed a decentralized hedge fund. It’s a form of perfect nihilistic realpolitik. The strong do what they can and the weak hedge funds, at least as of May 2021, suffer what they must.
So those are the generally agreed-upon facts, although opinions obviously vary plus or minus a few points one way or the other. Now here’s the interesting thing. I majored in religious studies in college. A lot of what I see developing on the GME message boards looks less like a long-term capitalist alternative to capitalism, and more like the development of a cult. In fact, you could even characterize it in some ways as a doomsday cult. Apes are okay with the fact that if the MOASS (Mother of all Short Squeezes) does occur — or if I was a Hollywood executive I’d name it The Big Squeeze — the financial system could very likely collapse and a recession or depression, perhaps worse than any previously faced in modern history, would be ushered in. This is because it would bankrupt the hedge funds, which invest money on behalf of many of the world’s largest institutional investors and family wealth. Now, taking a step back from a moral stance on this let’s throw on our tweed jackets and think about this from a sociological perspective like that cool college professor we all liked who drank microbrews before that was fashionable.
Regardless of whether or not you, dear reader, agree, disagree, support, denounce, or are just totally indifferent to the plight of the apes, this characterization as a cult is important because it speaks to an important and broader trend. Cults are definitionally different from organized religions in that they exist outside of the existing cultural norms of the status quo, rather than being inside of them and in many cases invested in maintaining them. In the modern world, religions encourage constructive pillars of stability like marriage, the value of life, and deference to your parents, whereas cults do things like, well, getting people excited about the “any minute now” collapse of the world financial order. Attempts at cultural upheaval by millenarian groups are nothing new — in fact, the Christian religion to name just one example owes its present status to the success of 13 determined men with beards in their 30s talking about how a reckoning was coming (sounds a bit like RoaringKitty and some of the Reddit mods tbh??). But the timing of the arrival of the apes on the scene importantly correlates with another emergent force tied to financial markets and disseminated at a never-before-seen rate through the internet. What’s another thing these forces have in common? They can preach a gospel of salvation, while also making you a TON of money (as long as you’re one of the lucky few, and you believe hard enough to just HODL). What other socio-financial force am I referring to? Why cryptocurrency, of course.
Apes HODLing GME and the rise of cryptocurrency seem to tie into the crypto-anarchist movement largely born out of the work of former Intel computer engineer Tim May and his 1988 work, the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. The basic principles of crypto-anarchism, as laid out by May, include encrypted exchanges ensuring total anonymity, total freedom of speech, and total freedom to trade. May’s manifesto establishes that hostility from the ruling State is inevitable, a common cult catch-all clause to ensure devotion by its members in the face of the inevitable backlash from the mainstream. Crypto-currency itself is named after and can be directly traced back to, Tim May’s Crypto Anarchist Manifesto which predicted a future where anonymity-protecting technology would render state control of the financial system impossible. It even starts just like Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which is fun. The goal was a world where everything would be available for sale to anyone, anytime, and entirely tax-free. Early apostles of crypto-currency spread its gospel as a means to usher in this crypto-anarchist Elysium.
What is interesting is that Bitcoin, and crypto-currency as a whole, has evolved into the mainstream without the vast majority of people knowing about its crypto-anarchist roots. The term HODL itself was born out of the Bitcoin movement. Tim May’s crypto-anarchy has gone mainstream, transforming itself from a fringe online startup cult into a neophyte unquestioned mainstream religion with various schismatic online offshoots such as the cult of GME and its messiah Keith Gill.
Of course, these socio-financial forces are just some of the more obvious examples of a general sense of upheaval and uncertainty we currently face. In fact, I would say they unfairly serve as the lightning rods or punching bags for the criticism leveled by older generations (insert “Ok Boomer” joke here). As a card-carrying member of the millennial generation, I can speak firsthand to the feeling of disenfranchisement felt by my generation and the very real numbers that back it up. The past few decades have been tough and suffering through this pandemic over this past year has acted as a catalyzing force. In June 2020, the US officially entered into a recession ending a 128-month expansion steak, the longest in post-World War II history. The National Bureau of Economic Research, which determines recessions, cited the “unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy.” Will this recession lead to a depression? Time will tell.
Added to this period of immense financial unease and instability, you have an increasingly divided political system of “you’re either with us or against us” logic on both sides, coupled with, of course, a once in a century global pandemic that has left all of us feeling powerless in the face of it. Given all of the above, I’ve got to be honest I see the appeal of joining the apes (or ants, I would be remiss if I left out our Korean compatriots) and swinging for the fences. There is a deep sense of disenfranchisement and ennui, coupled with a very real fixation on earning money that comes from a generation living through two periods of hyperinflation in housing prices in their formative years, coupled with a pandemic and an atrocious job market. This ennui is being felt across all generations. Add a pandemic, stimmys, more time on the internet due to quarantine, the rise of the crypto-anarchist vibe, and poof, here we are.
And I believe we are just getting started. The GME ape movement has already birthed other stock-ticker cults (you heard that term here first) including a large group HODLing AMC, yes, the movie theater, stock. Stock cults are here now and while I don’t have the answers, I believe we do need a strategy because these movements are not going anywhere. Every aspect of our society — corporations, families, religions, and governments, etc. — may be forever shaped by this evolving zeitgeist. We may be at the beginning of a ride unlike any we’ve been on before.
We are living in an era where our justice system is being questioned. We are living in an era where our medical system is being questioned. We are living in an era where our financial system is being questioned. The sentiment that these societal cornerstones aren’t so much broken, but never functioned for hoi polloi to begin with, has taken root. And people are angry, and rightfully so. I began my exploration into what’s happening with GME stock as Jane Goodall did, I lived amongst the apes, trying to understand them and make sense of their culture. I asked myself, what does it mean to truly be an ape? Am I an ape? Are you an ape? What are the cultural implications and ramifications if the stock does not squeeze at all? But I’ve since questioned how I should know the answer to any of these questions to begin with. After all, I’m just a smooth brained, crayon eating, diamond handed ape holding X waiting for my tendies so I can buy a lambo, hanging out with ants waiting for GME to moon after the squeeze and MOASS…I like the stock 💎🙌