A new study explores how investors' behavior is affected by participating in online communities, like Reddit's WallStreetBets.
- The study found evidence that "hype" over assets is psychologically contagious among investors in online communities.
- This hype is self-perpetuating: A small group of investors hypes an asset, bringing in new investors, until growth becomes unsteady and a price crash ensues.
- The researchers suggested that these new kinds of self-organized, social media-driven investment behaviors are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Social media has reshaped human behavior in ways we're only starting to understand. The proliferation of online communities has helped spawn novel strategies for promoting political causes, conducting business, finding sex and love, and transforming culture.
Could online communities also transform behavior in the financial world?
That's one of the key questions explored in a new study published on the preprint server arXiv. Titled "Reddit's self-organised bull runs: Social contagion and asset prices," the study used discussion data from the subreddit WallStreetBets to analyze relationships between the price of stocks and "hype" among online retail investors.
Hype is nothing new in the investing world. But the researchers noted that there seems to be something novel about the short squeeze of GameStop's stock in January, when the price of the stock rose tenfold, thanks largely to self-organized retail investors from WallStreetBets.
"As academics and regulators alike grapple with the implications, many wonder whether large-scale coordination among retail investors is the new 'modus operandi,' or a one-off fluke," the researchers wrote. "We argue that this is a new manifestation of a well-established global phenomenon."
To better understand how online hype is associated with stock prices, the researchers focused on two social components of hype: contagion and consensus. Contagion refers to investors spreading interest in an asset among each other, while consensus refers to their ability to agree on whether to buy or sell an asset.
The analysis found empirical evidence that both contagion and consensus emerge in online communities like WallStreetBets. In other words, investors spread sentiments about future stock performance to other investors, and then they cohere around investment strategies.
Popularity over fundamentals
The findings suggest that an asset's popularity, not its fundamentals, is paramount to many investors.
"Our results consistently show that investors become interested in discussing an asset, not because of fundamentals, but because other users discuss it," the researchers wrote. "Subsequently, this paper tests whether an individual's sentiment about future asset performance [is] affected by those of others. We find that this is the case: people look to their peers to form an opinion about an asset's potential."
To find evidence for social contagion among online investors, the researchers compiled a large dataset of posts and comments submitted to WallStreetBets. The goal was to analyze whether investors' past comments or posts about a given stock, such as Tesla, had a predictable effect on future discussions of that asset within WallStreetBets.
After conducting a regression analysis, the results suggest that hype is socially contagious and cyclical. The cycle usually plays out like this: A small group of investors hypes an asset. This attracts a larger group of investors who join the discussions.
But eventually, too many investors have joined the discussion, and fewer new investors are buying into the hype. As investors lose interest, they spend less time discussing (or "spreading") the asset on the forum, and they turn to new opportunities. The process is similar to a virus: As enough people become infected, they reach herd immunity, and the virus (hype) dies out.
So, does this process affect the stock price, and if so, how? The researchers said it was difficult to establish causality between hype and actual market activity. After all, they didn't have access to the trading records of subscribers to WallStreetBets.
But their model did show that activity on WallStreetBets was able to explain "significant variance" in trading volumes for the most-discussed assets on the forum. This suggests that when social contagion is strong for a given asset, consensus is strong too.
On the stock chart, consensus may start off bullish (or positively): As hype spreads, there's a slow, steady run-up in price. But the growth eventually becomes unstable and is followed by a crash and a period of volatility.
"The price crash stems from panic selling, as investors turn nervous in the face of volatility," the researchers wrote.
Bad news spreads faster than good news
Interestingly, the analysis found that bearish (or negative) sentiments were significantly more contagious on WallStreetBets.
"The data demonstrates that authors who previously commented on a bearish post are 47.7% more likely to express bearish over neutral sentiments, and 18.1% less likely to express bullish sentiments over neutral sentiments. Similarly, but less markedly, authors who previously commented on at least one bullish submission are 9.4% more likely to write a bullish submission, yet 11.3% less likely to write a bearish one."
The researchers said that the changing investing climate and widely available online data offers "promising opportunities for future research."
"As social media galvanizes a larger pool of retail investors with the potential for exciting stock market gambles, it is crucial to understand how social dynamics can impact asset prices," the researchers wrote. "With the first publicly acclaimed victory of Main Street over Wall Street, in the form of the GameStop short squeeze, it is unlikely that socially-driven asset volatility will simply disappear."
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People often make a killing in stocks, but there are other ways to potentially turn major profits.
- Outside of stocks and bonds, some people make money investing in collectibles and make a fair amount on them.
- One stamp even sold for a billion times its face value.
- The extreme dependence on future collectability, however, limits the potential of most of these opportunities.
The question of how to make your money work for you is a never-ending problem. While stocks, bonds, and currencies of all kinds are common choices, they aren't the only things you can put your money into. Various collectibles, household objects, and clothing articles have made headlines for being sources of income for people who can predict which ones will end up being valuable years after purchase and reaping the profits.
While the word "investment" is a strong one, some people really do buy these items in hopes of reselling them for higher amounts later, much as you might do with stocks or bonds. So, let's look at five alternative investing options with occasionally eye-popping returns.
For those who weren't content to catch them all in a video game came a trading card game where you could collect them all. Some classic cards have gained tremendous stature among collectors and Pokéfanatics and sell for extremely high prices.
An older card featuring Charizard, a fire breathing dragon, regularly sells for thousands online. Given that the card could be purchased for a couple dollars in 1999, this is quite the return. A particular pack of Pokémon cards, which cost $5 in 2003, now sells for $650, 130 times the original asking price.
Of course, not every card will fetch these high prices. Buying cards as an investment is tricky. You have to essentially guess at which cards will be considered highly valuable at a later date and will be unable to collect dividends before selling them.
Furthermore, you have to presume that people will be collecting the cards years after buying them. While Pokémon has remained popular, it is a bit of an outlier in terms of enduring success.
People from all walks of life—from skateboarders to the First Lady of the Philippines—enjoy collecting shoes. An entire subculture exists for people interested in collecting sneakers, and some people make quite a profit in it.
The Nike SB Dunk Low Reese Forbes Denims, priced initially at $65 in 2002, are commonly valued in the thousands of dollars now. The Nike Air Jordan 1 Retro High x Off White "Chicago" shoe sold for $190 a mere four years ago, but now sells for $4000 a pair.
A Huffington Post article points out that most of these shoes offered better returns than gold over the same period. The same article quotes YouTube personality Mr. Foamer Simpson and his explanation of the difficulties of making money on shoes:
"There's a guessing game or element of unpredictability that makes it exciting for some collectors. With sneakers, you kind of never know. Sure, you know what sneakers are more limited or which ones were harder to get, but even with that, it fluctuates a lot. A sneaker that was very valuable two years ago might all of a sudden crash and no longer be valuable."
Toys of all kinds
If there's one thing everybody loves, it's what they loved when they were children. That often translates into old and rare toys fetching insane prices at auction.
Beanie Babies, those little stuffed animals from the 1990s, once sold for thousands of dollars online, not bad considering they originally cost $5. LEGO sets, particularly those featuring well-known franchises like Star Wars, can sell for hundreds online.
As with Pokémon cards, the success stories are dependent on what people are interested in collecting long after most people forgot the toy existed. While some collectors have ideas on how to gauge what might or might not end up being valuable later, there seems to be a considerable amount of luck involved.
The hobby of kings has occasionally made some people as rich as one, with rare stamps and extensive collections fetching high prices at auction.
One of the famous "Inverted Jenny" stamps, a rare misprint showing an upside-down airplane, sold for $1,593,000 at auction. The most valuable stamp in the world, the British Guiana 1c magenta, last sold for $9,480,000, a billion times its face value. For those interested in a shorter-term investment, the USA Forever stamp has gained a face value of 75% since its introduction and can still be used to send a letter.
For those who want to invest in actual money but without having it do money-related things, collectible coins may be the ticket.
The misprinted Wisconsin State Quarter, featuring an extra leaf on an ear of corn, can sell for up to $2,800, though the price has declined in recent years. Older coins made of precious metals are also highly valued; a silver dollar from 1804 sold for nearly $2,000,000 at auction. Even old wheat pennies can sell for a couple of dollars today.
While these collectibles can provide high returns on your investment in them, they don't provide dividends, and their value is entirely dependent on how much collectors are willing to pay for the particular item you have. As a couple of the above examples show, tastes can change and leave your investment worthless. If you have some luck, an eye for trends, and the good fortune not to have thrown out your old stuff, you might be able to make a fair amount on it.
Of course, if you manage to get rich because you found an old coin in your desk after reading this article, be sure to remember who wrote it.
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
PayPal CEO Dan Schulman sees a silver lining amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic: It's accelerating cryptocurrency adoption at a rapid clip, potentially by years.
Speaking in front of a digital audience at the 2020 Web Summit, Schulman added that he's optimistic about the future of cryptocurrencies:
"I think that if you can create a financial system, a new and modern technology that is faster, that is less expensive, more efficient, that's good for bringing more people into the system, for inclusion, to help drive down costs, to help drive financial health for so many people. [...] So, over the long run, I'm very bullish on digital currencies of all kinds."
His bullishness might be unsurprising, considering PayPal is among the latest fintech companies to move into the cryptocurrency space. In October, PayPal announced that users would soon be able to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies "directly through PayPal using their Cash or Cash Plus account." That went into effect in November, and the company plans to extend it to Venmo users in 2021.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon
The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest (minimum investment: $100,000). Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon
But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.
"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."
Sanja Kon, CEO of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:
"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."
Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership.
"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.
Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:
"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'
Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.
"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told Bloomberg. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."
There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them relatively invulnerable to inflation. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.
But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency.
"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."
A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.
It can be tempting to look at the economic history of the last two decades and derive a certain lesson. That lesson being: The millennial generation is screwed. The Washington Post even tagged millennials as the "unluckiest generation in history."
It's understandable why the punditocracy would think this. Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials exited school and entered work right into the Great Recession. The recession forced many millennials to postpone financial milestones such as marriage, buying a home, retirement savings, or even reliable employment. That global setback quietly became a generational one. While the baby boomers and GenXers recovered their lost wealth relatively quickly, millennials couldn't and became the first generation with a standard of living lower than their parents'.
A decade later, millennials face the pandemic shutdown. Although we can't say with certainty how the pandemic will affect us in the long-term, early forecasts suggest millennials will again take the brunt. Pew Research Center data, for example, suggest that about a third of millennial-aged homes have had someone in the household lose a job, while Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data forecast millennials suffering longer stretches of joblessness.
"Millennials are in a fundamentally different economic place than previous generations," Reid Cramer, director of the Millennials Initiative at New America, wrote in "The Emerging Millennial Wealth Gap. "Relatively flat but volatile incomes, low savings and asset holdings, and higher consumer and student debt have weakened their finances. The Millennial balance sheet is in poor shape."
Taking control of bad luck
According to a recent survey by The Manifest, a business news website, millennials agree with Cramer. The study found that, of millennials surveyed, their largest expenses were housing (66 percent), educational expenses (9 percent), and health insurance (6 percent). In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, millennials are using the remaining 19 percent of their paychecks to budget and increase their savings.
About a third of millennials said they are saving more money in response to the pandemic and creating new budgets for themselves. In fact, of all generations surveyed, millennials felt the most comfortable creating personal budgets. They were also willing to think critically and adjust budgets to match financial changes, both signs that this highly-educated generation is willing to learn and adapt.
Millennials still have a rough road ahead, though. According to the survey, about half of millennials make less than $50,000 a year. That puts them into the upper-lower or lower-middle income class, depending on where in the country they live. That matches BLS data, which shows millennials earning less than older non-millennials. The BLS also notes that while millennials have less debt than GenXers, most of that is student loan debt rather than mortgages.
And despite their budgetary plans, only 11 percent of millennials surveyed were able to stay within budget, while uncertainty still looms in the future job market.
With all this said, there are caveats to The Manifest survey. It hosted a relatively small sample size, only surveying 502 Americans. Of those, millennials made up 22 percent of respondents. They weren't even the largest cohort in the study. That was the baby boomers at 32 percent.
This makes the survey more suggestive than indicative. But the suggestion is that millennials, to borrow a phrase from writer Vicki Robin, are ready to reinterpret their relationship with finances.
A push for financial freedom
While budgeting and financial savvy have always been important, the millennial generation will need to be far more critical of their relationship with the economy. What Robin calls the old roadmap—the idea that "growth is good, more is better, game over"—is unlikely to support millennials as it did past generations. They'll need a new roadmap, charting both a new macro (the relationship between our economic and ecological footprints, for example) and micro (our individual relationships with money).
Because the macro is a whole other article, we'll stick with the micro here:
1) Track and cut your spending
The first step to financial freedom is to track your spending and cut unnecessary purchases. For Robin, these are often the things, services, and subscriptions that we buy out of habit, but we no longer consider whether they add value to our lives.
A pernicious modern example is the subscription economy. We subscribe to services for food, clothes, television, exercise, self-help, video games, bric-a-brac, computer programs, and on and on. These services quickly fade into the financial background as just another bill we pay.
But if we watch Netflix nine times out of ten, why pay for Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max and CBS All access? Instead, every month or so, we should scrutinize our subscriptions to ask whether they still add value to our lives. If they don't, unsubscribe.
2) Kill your debt
Debt doesn't just take away money we could save elsewhere; it's also a self-replicating devourer of wealth. Your debt interest rates are almost certainly higher than your investment returns, especially on credit cards. Because of this, no matter your saving rituals, you're likely bleeding wealth the longer you remain in debt.
Instead, focus on removing debt from your life. Again, credit card debt especially. The good news is that most companies have hardship programs to help debtors. You can call them to see if they can lower your interest rates or provide other helpful services.
"Financial accommodations are generally readily available right now," Amy Thomann, the head of consumer credit education at TransUnion, told the New York Times. "Lenders, just like consumers, understand the hardships that are going on in the economy."
3) Have an emergency fund
Of course, you'll need some savings when the unexpected happens. Say—I don't know—a worldwide pandemic? Experts like Robin and Thomann recommend people have three to six months' worth of expenses on reserve. These should be in liquid assets so you can access them easily and quickly.
Of course, that's not always feasible, but you should save what you can.
4) Find social outlets that don't cost
The economic shutdown has offered one financial boon: It has revealed ways we can enjoy each other's company with overspending. We can host movies remotely with our friends. Play video games online. Enjoy physical-distance strolls through the park. And a host of other creative connections. After the pandemic, the occasional bar hop or Friday dinner out can still be a guilty pleasure. But unlike sitcom characters, we shouldn't be spending our social lives on the set of our favorite coffee shops or local watering holes.
5) Reconsider your relationship with money
Robin pushes her readers to be financially free. That is, to understand that there's an economy, people have a relationship with it, but it shouldn't become an obsession that runs their lives. As she told Big Think: "It's like there are so many presumptions that drive us into wage [slavery], and it doesn't matter whether you are at the low end or the high end. If you are engaged in that sort of anxious process of 'more, more, more,' you are not free."
The millennial generation has certainly been dealt a bum hand, but it's perhaps defeatist, and more than a little premature, to label them the unluckiest generation. Perhaps after being led astray by the old roadmap, they will be the generation to reconsider their relationship with money—not as an end itself but a means to a healthier and more beneficial life.