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The “Retail Investor Revolution” in the U.S.

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Authors: Chan Kung and He Jun

Recently, the battle between retail investors and institutional investors is taking place in the U.S. stock market, with some short-selling institutional investors being driven to the brink of bankruptcy. The rise of the retail investor, which has led to huge volatility in the U.S. stock market, is nothing short of a “retail investor revolution” in a market dominated by institutional investors.

GameStop (GME), the world’s largest video game and entertainment software specialty retailer with a chain of nearly 7,000 retail stores worldwide, has continued to underperform in recent years under the impact of online gaming, with its stock price dipping from USD 28 per share in 2016 to USD 2.57 per share in April 2020. Nevertheless, since January 11, 2021, retail investors have been bullish on GME that it has soared to as high as USD 483 per share, a “crazy” move that drove Melvin Capital, a hedge fund with a large short position in the company, to the brink of bankruptcy. So far this year, short-sellers had lost USD 19.75 billion on GME, according to fintech and analytics firm S3 Partners. S3 Partners estimates that short positions in GME lost more than USD 7.8 billion on January 29 alone. The “long-short” battle between retail investors and institutional investors ended with the retreat of institutional investors.

Other U.S. stocks that have recently been caught up in the “long-short” battle have also been volatile. On January 28, American Airlines plunged after opening nearly 31% higher, closing up 9.30%. Castor Marintime, a Cypriot dry bulk shipping company, also plunged after opening with a 67.62% jump, closing up 14.77%. AMC Theatres, a U.S. cinema chain on the verge of bankruptcy, closed down 56.63% on the same day after soaring more than sevenfold in two weeks. Canadian mobile phone company BlackBerry and the U.S. fashion clothing chain Express also fell about 42% and 51%, respectively.

The U.S. capital market has long been dominated by institutional investors, and in mid-2018, institutional investors held 93.2% of the market value of the stock market, while individual investors held less than 6% of the market value. In the U.S. capital market, where institutions are the absolute majority, the market system and regulatory rules are set in favor of institutional investors. Market participants, i.e., investors (institutional investors and retail investors), regulatory authorities, and financing entities (enterprises) have formed a set of “self-consistent” system. However, the “retail investor revolution” has disrupted the conventional ecology of the market, with some young retail investors from the WallStreetBets (WSB) group on the Reddit forum throwing institutions into disarray. This “long-short” battle has put retail investors, represented by the “WallStreetBets”, at center stage and secured support from the top elites, including Elon Musk. In the face of this sudden “retail investor revolution”, the reasons and possible effects are worth in-depth observation and thinking.

First, who opposes the “retail investor revolution”?

The answer is of course, Wall Street as represented by institutional investors, who are the “establishment” in the capital market and represent the mainstream and value perspectiveof the financial market. Goldman Sachs, a prominent investment bank, saying the butterfly effect of the GME short squeeze is leading to the worst short squeeze in the U.S. stock market since the financial crisis. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. stock market has seen a number of severe short squeezes, but none as extreme as has occurred recently. Goldman Sachs warned that if the short squeeze continued, the entire financial market would collapse. According to Goldman Sachs, unsustainable excess in one small part of the market has the potential to tip a row of dominoes and create broader turmoil. In recent years, the pattern of low volume and high concentration in U.S. stocks has increased the risk of funds unwinding their position across the market.

Market maker brokers and trading platforms have also imposed strict restrictions on retail trading. In the midst of a fierce battle between retail investors and short sellers in the U.S. stock market, for example, several brokerage houses, including Robinhood, a zero-commission online brokerage, and Interactive Brokers, one of the largest online brokerages in the U.S., abruptly shut down buying of WSB related stocks such as GME, AMC, and Nokia. Robinhood said the restrictions had to be put in place because of the pressure on data processing and margins brought by the volume of retail trading. But the move immediately drew accusations from the market that the decision was “market manipulation”.

Second, what gathers a group of scattered retail investors?

According to Chan Kung, founder of the ANBOUND, the answer lies in the internet. A group of young retail investors gather in a Reddit subsection called WallStreetBets (WSB), and rely on the convenience of the internet to mobilize and convene, forming a force that can influence institutions in specific areas (such as WSB concept stocks). As in recent years, public use of social networking platforms in the social and political spheres has shifted to the stock market investment sphere.

Chan also pointed out in that the role of the internet is not only in mobilizing and convening, but also in providing and sharing quality analysis. The dominance of institutions in the stock market is not only reflected in funds, but also in research capabilities. They rely on professional teams to collect information, conduct market research, and conduct modeling and analysis, forming a certain information monopoly and an overall investment advantage over retail investors. However, the development of the internet has broken up this information monopoly. Due to the convenience of information acquisition and sharing, some small institutions and professional investors also have a high analytical ability. Their participation and sharing make the Internet platform another kind of “large institutions”, which provide investment analysis and advice to retail investors in a distributed manner. The rapid information sharing and investment actions make the retail investor cluster a “disruptor” and “challenger” that cannot be underestimated in the capital market. Chan Kung also pointed out that among the retail investors, a group of people with strong information ability will further decide the market trend in the future, and the investment in the capital market will gradually become information-oriented, and the size of the funds will not be as important as in the past.

Third, how would the U.S. financial regulators handle the short squeeze and the stock market turmoil?

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said on January 29 that it is closely monitoring extreme price volatility and will review entities that “unduly inhibit” traders’ ability to trade certain stocks. The SEC also added that extreme stock price volatility has the potential to expose investors to rapid and severe losses and undermine market confidence, and that market participants should be careful to avoid “illegal” manipulative trading activity. The SEC is working with regulators to assess the current situation and review the activities of regulated entities, financial intermediaries, and other market participants. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the White House economic team are closely watching the stock market activity around GameStop and other heavily shorted companies. She called the trading in the video-game retailer “a good reminder, though, that the stock market isn’t the only measure of the health of our economy.” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declined to weigh in on the activity around GameStop. “I don’t want to comment on a particular company or day’s market activity or things like that. It’s just not something really that I would typically comment on,” Powell said. This information suggests that the U.S. regulatory authorities are cautious in their stance on market volatility, but hope that the market will remain stable and compliant.

Fourth, what will happen to the market relationship between retail investors and institutions?

The “retail investor revolution” has exposed the contradiction between retail investors and institutions, and made the market relationship between retail investors and institutions the focus of the market. Retail investors are within their rights to take legal action against brokerage houses for restricting trading. In the market, it is not only the so-called “regulators” that can deliver justice. Chan Kung stressed that the real problem with institutional restrictions is that if Wall Street establishes a firewall for market trading and prohibits retail investors from uniting to make the market, then the market becomes an inter-agency market, and may even further evolve into a false trading market, shaking the foundation of the entire market system. Therefore, this unprecedented short squeeze triggered by retail investors has exposed a systemic defect in the U.S. capital market. To solve this problem, there is the need to continue observing and following up.

Remarkably, the same problem exists in China. People who speculate in Chinese stocks gather on WeChat and online forums to lead a large number of hot money to hit the market. Drawing on the example of the “retail investor revolution” in the U.S., the following questions are worth considering: Is such trading activity legal? If it is “illegal”, then what kind of market has the Chinese stock market become? If there are certain winners in the market, limits on how much the stock price can go up and how much they can go down, and, in short, all the criteria that are set internally, isn’t the market trading becoming akin to sham game? Such questions are also worth pondering in China’s retail investors-dominated stock market.

Final analysis conclusion

The historical experience shows that the enthusiasm of the market can never prevent the laws of the market from working, and that the rules formed on the basis of previous experiences and lessons are still the main keynote of the market. At the same time, one should also see that with the changes in the information world and the changes in the behavior of retail investors, retail investors are forming a force that can affect the market. Therefore, certain changes in the market system and regulatory approach as a result are likely to be a future trend.

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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The Politico-Economic Crisis of Lebanon

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Dubbed as a failed state. The Middle Eastern country, also known as the ‘Lebanese Republic’, is already leading towards a humanitarian crisis. The country is witnessing the worst financial crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. The financial catastrophe has done most of the damage as the country currently stands as one of the top 10 worst economic disasters witnessed over the past 150 years. If the economists are put true to their word, it means that Lebanon rates as the most dismal economic crash since the 19th century. As the state of Lebanon undergoes a significant political shift since last year, the social and economic fissures are subsequently broadening. A fragile democracy (for namesake) and a constant disequilibrium in the parliamentary stratosphere, have led to an economic depression that is rapidly expanding as the country fails to adopt a unified political stance and adhere to corrective measures to hold the toppling economy from a collapse.

More than half of the Lebanese population has slumped below the poverty line as escalating inflation continues to reel the populace. The main cause underpinning such brutal inflation is the hyper-devaluation of the Lebanese pound. The currency was originally pegged at a fixed rate of 1500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. However, over the past three decades, the economic crunch has crippled the economic nucleus of Lebanon. According to World Bank estimates, the Lebanese pound has devalued by 95% and currently trades at 22000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in the black market – roughly 15 times above the official rate. The resultant inflation has driven the government to push the prices to unfathomable levels – even pushing necessities beyond the reach of an average citizen. The fact could be witnessed by the rapid increase in the price of bread – which was hiked by another 5% last month to value at 4000 Lebanese pounds per loaf.

The dire social crisis could be gauged by the fact that an average Lebanese family requires a spending worth five times the minimum wage mandated by the government just to afford basic food requirements. Most of the families can’t suffice to consume utilities such as medicine, gas, or electricity. Astounding research revealed that even hospitals dealing with the Covid outbreak are not afforded gas and electricity which has led to a hike in petroleum consumption due to heavy usage of generators. The resulting shortage of petroleum has driven rage across the country as businesses fail to thrive while multiple wings of the airports are rendered powerless. The recent World Bank report signified that the food prices have inflated by roughly 700% over the past two years – a swell of 50% in just under a month. The regional countries have shown concern as Lebanon is heading towards a health crisis with a strengthening Delta variant in the Middle East and no room for recovery.

The main cause of such a debilitating situation is primarily the rampant corruption in the echelons of the government followed by the instability that ensued last year. Following the catastrophic blast in Beirut’s port that claimed an estimated 200 lives, the government resigned in the aftermath of virulent protests across Lebanon. The political vacuum, however, further pushed the state into despair. The caretaker government, led by the former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, failed to consolidate a government as ideological differences between the President and the Prime Minister continued to displace the essential debates of the country. The contention between President Michel Aon, a stout supporter of the Shite militant group Hezbollah, and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Centrist, caused the efforts to falter as the country continued to plunge into crisis without an elected government to handle the office.

Hariri drove the narrative that due to President’s strong ties with the Hezbollah, which is arguably supported by Iran, Lebanon has suffered a shuffle of power to entrust financial support to the militant group. The narrative caused institutions like IMF and the World Bank to hesitate in injecting desperately needed social stimulus into the country despite continual warnings of an impending humanitarian crisis by France and the United States. A political vacuum coupled with the destruction caused last year along with the prudence of global financial institutions to pivot the country have ultimately resulted in the chaos that describes the landscape of Lebanon today.

However, Hariri resigned last month after failing to form a government even after nine months. The resulting political thaw helped President Aon to appoint Najib Mikati, a lucrative businessman, and former prime minister, as an interim Prime Minister entrusted to form a mandated government in Lebanon.

With a renewed Cabinet support, something that Hariri rarely enjoyed, Mikati is expected to assuage the concerns of the IMF and support economic reforms with the help of states like France. The Paris conference, scheduled on 4th August, is now the focal point as Mikati plans to convince the French diplomats regarding his schemes to pull Lebanon out of the puddle. Prime Minister Mikati recently reflected on his aspirations: “I come from the world of business and finance and I will have a say in all finance-related decisions”. He further stated: “I don’t have a magic wand and can’t perform miracles … but I have studied the situation for a while and have international guarantees”. It is clear that Mikati envisages repairing the economy which is already long overdue.

Under the French plan aiding Mikati’s regime, he would need to enforce significant political reforms to gain international aid. The diplomats, however, envision a far graver reality. It is touted that the IMF would likely focus on two facets before granting any leverage to the Mikati-regime: political-social reforms and progress towards parliamentary elections. However, with grueling Covid cases springing into action, the road to recovery would probably be highly tensile. 

While Mikati doesn’t stem from any particular political bloc unlike his failed predecessors, he was elected primarily by the backing of Hezbollah. A question emerges: would Mikati be able to navigate through the interests of an organization subjected as a terrorist fraction by most of the Western world. An organization that arguably serves as the primary reason why Lebanon stands as one of the highly indebted countries in the world. An organization that could be the decisive factor of whether financial support flows to Lebanon or sanctions cripple the economy further similar to Iran. The question stands: would Mikati refuse the dictation of Hezbollah and what would be the consequences. The situation is highly complex and time is running out. If Mikati fails, much like his predecessors, then not only Lebanon but the proximate region would feel the tremors of a ‘Social Explosion’.

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Bangladesh-Myanmar Economic Ties: Addressing the Next Generation Challenges

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Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have developed through phases of cooperation and conflict. Conflict in this case is not meant in the sense of confrontation, but only in the sense of conflict of interests and resultant diplomatic face-offs. Myanmar is the only other neighbor that Bangladesh has on its border besides India. It is the potential gateway for an alternative land route opening towards China and South-East Asia other than the sea. Historically, these two countries have geographic and cultural linkages. These two bordering countries, located in separate geopolitical regions, have huge possibilities in developing their bilateral economic relations. At the initial phase of their statehood, both countries undertook numerous constructive initiatives to improve their relations. Nevertheless, different bilateral disputes and challenges troubled entire range of cooperation. Subsequent to these challenges, Bangladesh and Myanmar have started negotiation process on key dubious issues. The economic rationales over political tensions in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations prevail with new prospects and opportunities.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. They signed several agreements on trade and business such as general trade agreement in 1973. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on 05 September 1995. To increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In the twenty-first century, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are expected to move towards greater economic cooperation facilitated by two significant factors. First, the victory of Myanmar’s pro-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2011 has considerably brought new dimensions in the relations. Although this relation is now at stake since the state power has been taken over by military. Second, the peaceful settlement of Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime dispute in 2012 added new dimension in their economic relations.

Bangladesh and Myanmar don’t share a substantial volume of trade and neither is in the list of largest trading partners. Bangladesh’s total export and import with Myanmar is trifling compared to the total export and import and so do Myanmar’s. But gradually the trades between the countries are increasing and the trend is for the last 5 to 6 year is upward especially for Bangladesh; although Bangladesh is facing a negative trend in Balance of Payment. In 2018-2019 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s total export to Myanmar was $25.11 million which is more than double from that of the export in 2011-12. Bangladesh imported $90.91 million worth goods and services from Myanmar resulting in $65 Million deficit in Balance of Payment in 2018-2019 fiscal year. For the last six or seven years, Bangladesh’s Balance of Payment was continuously in deficit in case of trade with Myanmar. The outbreak of COVID-19, closure of border for eight months and recent coup in Myanmar have a negative impact on the trade between the countries. 

Bangladesh mainly imports livestock, vegetable products including onion, prepared foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, plastics, raw hides and skin, leather, wood and articles of woods, footwear, textiles and artificial human hair from Myanmar. Recently, due to India’s ban on cattle export, Myanmar has emerged as a new exporter of live animals to Bangladesh especially during the Eid ul-Adha with a cheaper rate than India. On the hand, Bangladesh exports frozen foods, chemicals, leather, agro-products, jute products, knitwear, fish, timber and woven garments to Myanmar.

Unresolved Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s highly unpredictable political landscape, lack of bilateral connectivity, shadow economy created from illegal activities, distrust created due to different insurgent groups, maritime boundary dispute, illegal drugs and arms smuggling in border areas, skeptic mindset of the people in both fronts and alleged cross border movement of insurgents are acting as stumbling block in bolstering economic relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are yet to blossom in full swing. The agreement signed by Sheikh Hasina in 2011 to establish a Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation is definitely a proactive step for enhancing trade. People to people contact can be increased for building mutual confidence and trust. Frequent visit by business, civil society, military and civil administration delegates may be organized for better understanding and communication. Both countries may explore economic potential and address common interest for enhancing economic co-operation. In order to augment trade, both countries may ease visa restrictions, deregulate currency restrictions and establish smooth channel of financial transactions. Coastal shipping (especially cargo vessels between Chittagong and Sittwe), air and road connectivity may be developed to inflate trade and tourism. Bangladesh and Myanmar may establish “Point of Contact” to facilitate first-hand information exchange for greater openness. Initiative may be taken to sign Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within the ambit of which potential export items from both countries would be allowed to enter duty free. In recent year, Bangladesh was badly affected by many unilateral decisions of India such as onion crisis. Myanmar can serve as an alternative import source of crops and animals for Bangladesh to lessen dependence upon India.

Myanmar’s currency is highly devaluated for a long time due to its political turmoil and sanctions by the west. Myanmar can strengthen its currency value by escalating trade volume with Bangladesh. These two countries can fortify their local economy in boarder areas by establishing border haats. Cooperation between these two countries on “Blue Economy” may be source of strategic advantages mainly by exporting marine goods and service. Last but not the least, the peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012 may be capitalized to add new dimension in their bilateral economic relations. Both nations can expand trade and investment by utilizing the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).

With the start of a new phase in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, which has put the bilateral relations on an upswing, it is only natural that both sides should try to give a boost to bilateral trade. Bilateral trade is not challenge free but the issue is far easier to resolve than others. At the same time, closer economic ties could also help in resolving other bilateral disputes. For Myanmar, as it is facing currency devaluation and losing market, increased trade volume will make their economy vibrant. For Bangladesh, it is a good opportunity to use the momentum to minimize trade deficits and reduce dependency on any specific country.

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The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate

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The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.

The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.

Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22. 

Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.

Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.

The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.

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