Congress held a second hearing on the mania in GameStop Corp. shares yesterday. It focused on the business model used by Robinhood and other brokers popular with retail traders, which is called “payment for order flow.”
In this system, companies that execute trades (such as Citadel Securities) pay the broker (Robinhood, etc.) to execute the trades. They execute the buy and sell orders at a price slightly better than the public markets, but still keep a bit of money for themselves.
This model introduces a conflict of interest: what if Citadel gives you a worse price than the public market, and Robinhood is happy to let them do so because Citadel is sharing the graft with them? This was a big focus of yesterday’s hearing:
Potential market weaknesses highlighted by the GameStop trading frenzy brought calls for further investigation and possible regulation at a second House Financial Services Committee hearing Wednesday.
Those weaknesses include the potential for conflicts of interest between payment for order flow and best execution, whether short sale disclosure is adequate and if settlement times should be shortened.
There’s research to indicate that payment for order flow lowers prices for investors, but Citadel and Robinhood have also been fined for giving investors worse prices than public markets. So the jury is out on whether this practice is good or not. One thing seems certain: if payment for order flow is banned, trading commissions are coming back.
Settlement times are another major issue. If I send you a text message, you get it almost instantly. If I send you money via Zelle or the Cash app, same thing. But if I ask to buy 100 shares of GameStop, the trade doesn’t actually happen for several days, no matter what the Robinhood app tells you.
Even in today’s wired world, it takes two full days for a trade to be fully executed, or “settled.” This presents big problems for a super volatile stock like GameStop. In those two days, the shares could’ve doubled in price, or halved! We have no idea how much money will actually be required to settle the trade.
So, the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), which clears all those trades, makes Robinhood put up a bundle of money as collateral. This covers everyone if GameStop shares move wildly in price, putting Robinhood in a position of having to come up with a lot more money for shares than it actually has.
Robinhood couldn’t afford to post all that collateral, so they stopped people from buying shares in GameStop in January when the price was at its most volatile. This incensed users and even some members of Congress. But if the trades cleared instantly, this probably would not happen.
I can find no rational basis for such a slow system in the internet age. These trades amount to text messages, basically. Buy 100 shares GME at $150. We’ve got only four data points there: buy (vs. sell), number of shares, what stock, and what price. Send those to a computer program, match the orders, and get it over with! A 2 day clearing period might have made sense in a time of paper orders, but those days are long gone.
In all, I don’t see a lot in this hearing to affect the stock right now. But if payment for order flow is banned or settlement times are shortened, it could have a big impact on markets in the long term.
For more on GameStop, check out these posts:
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Photo: “GameStop” by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0