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From broker notes to memes: how the stock market went viral

Stockholm – “Stocks only go up”, concludes a video montage of televangelists, dancing Ghanaian pallbearers, and Donald Trump’s personal pastor repeatedly saying she can hear the “sound of victory”.

The tongue-in-cheek meme, designed to characterise bullish stock market sentiment when news of Pfizer BioNTech’s successful COVID-19 vaccine broke, has been viewed more than 1 million times on Instagram and Twitter.

Far more wide-reaching than broker research notes, memes have become central to a new form of financial literacy – or illiteracy, depending on your viewpoint – behind the frenzied boom in retail trading of cryptocurrencies or stocks on platforms like Robinhood.

Using images from pop culture overlaid with market commentary, they’re being praised – and vilified – for making trading entertaining and game-like.

“So many more people are getting into the stock market through Robinhood and bitcoin, so everyone is now in on the jokes about flipping your stimulus money or Fed intervention sending stocks up,” said Lit, the moniker of the man behind Litquidity, which produced the “sound of victory” meme.

He set Litquidity up four years ago, using memes to entertain young finance workers, but its Instagram following – the “litfam” – has doubled to around half a million since last March.

Lit, who works in finance and prefers not to go by his real name, is now making money from his sideline, attracting sponsorship from companies eager to reach a young audience with disposable income.

Litquidity’s recent 30 under 30 list of young people in finance – playing on the more established Forbes magazine’s annual ranking – was sponsored by trading apps and an eye wear brand. Lit has also posted a meme in partnership with payments app Revolut.

AUDIENCE REACH

For meme sponsors the potential audience was already huge but it has grown even further in the past few days.

Website Reddit’s wallstreetbets page, which this week picked the pockets of seasoned short sellers by encouraging a buying frenzy on GameStop, added two million followers in the last 48 hours.

On video sharing app TikTok, where 85% of users are under 35, there have been 5 billion and 1.4 billion views for #sidehustle and #finance, respectively.

Irish day trader Damian McVeigh said that social media content and memes helped pique his interest in finance.

“I always thought it was dry, but internet content livens it up. There’s less of a barrier because of it,” McVeigh – a quantity surveyor by trade – said.

This time last year McVeigh had limited interest in financial markets, but, after getting bored during lockdown, he now has a portfolio worth a quarter of his annual salary and a YouTube channel where he blogs about companies.

Trading app eToro grew its user base by around a third in 2020, with $1.5 billion invested on the platform, a 400% increase from 2019 as stuck-at-home punters splashed their cash.

However, critics say turning finance into entertainment can create a carnival atmosphere which promotes risk-taking by inexperienced traders.

“Memes or videos of people waving dollars around are a similar culture expression of joy as risk,” said Dr Cesar Albarran-Torres, a media lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

Albarran-Torres said internet chatter encourages uninitiated people to gamble on the stock market, adding: “It makes money into a video game.”

However, many social media users see the retail traders as worthy underdogs in a David v Goliath battle against established hedge funds who are used to getting their own way.

Twitter personality Liz Franczak tweeted: “the free market is when you stop reddit from trading meme options,” in reference to trading halts on stocks popular with Reddit’s wallstreetbets.

Top behavioural economist Professor Colin Camerer told Reuters that the three million strong Reddit traders “are all in a stadium cheering together”.

“Social media makes it possible to coordinate these mass actions,” Camerer said, adding that it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of this new financial phenomenon play out when some individuals in the group want to sell.

Regulation is another potential threat.

Lit, however, distances himself from accounts which recommend buying individual stocks. He says his role as meme creator is more akin to an observer or satirist.

“I like to caution at times when things seem very exuberant, to signal that this might not end well,” he added. — Reuters

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