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The Silicon Valley startup that caused Wall Street chaos

After Robinhood limited some trading on Thursday and the price of the stock plunged, furious users flooded online app stores with vitriolic reviews, with some accusing Robinhood of doing the bidding of Wall Street.

January 31, 2021 / 09:07 AM IST
This photo illustration shows the logo of trading application Robinhood on a mobile phone in Arlington, Virginia on January 28, 2021. (PC-AFP)

This photo illustration shows the logo of trading application Robinhood on a mobile phone in Arlington, Virginia on January 28, 2021. (PC-AFP)

The online trading app Robinhood became a cultural phenomenon and a Silicon Valley darling with a promise to wrest the stock market away from Wall Street’s traditional gatekeepers and “let the people trade” — making it as easy to put millions of dollars at risk as it is to summon an Uber.

This past week, in the middle of a market frenzy pitting amateur traders against hedge fund bigwigs, that veneer began to chip. As it turned out, Robinhood was at the mercy of the very industry it had vowed to upend.

The frenzy morphed into a crisis when legions of armchair investors on Robinhood, who had been buying up options and shares of GameStop, a video game retailer, enlarged those bets and also began making big trades in other stocks, including AMC Entertainment.

As the trading mania grew, the financial system’s risk reduction mechanisms — managed by obscure entities at the center of the stock market called clearinghouses — kicked in on Thursday, forcing Robinhood to find emergency cash to continue to be able to trade. It had to stop customers from buying a number of heavily traded stocks and draw on a more than $500 million bank line of credit. On Thursday night, the company also took an emergency infusion of more than $1 billion from its existing investors.