(Roughly) Daily

“I’m forever blowing bubbles / Pretty bubbles in the air”*…

 

Hertz

 

Last Wednesday, Hertz, which has filed for bankruptcy, suspended it’s plans to sell lots of new shares.  The backstory is fascinating… and sadly, all-too-indicative of our times…

Ok, so. Up until this year, I would’ve told you that there are two general kinds of financial bubbles.

The first kind of bubble is where everyone believes the future will be like the present. Think credit bubbles and real estate; think 2007-2008, where the fundamental belief that drove the bubble forward and into ruin was “We’ve figured this out. We can’t lose. The risk has all been worked out. Lever up, cowboy. We will never die.”…

The second kind of bubble is where everyone believes the future will be different from the present. Think equity bubbles, startups, and crypto; think 1999, where the fundamental belief that drove the bubble forward and into ruin was “It’s a new economy. All the rules are different. The upside is unlimited. If you get in now, you’ll be rich. We’re going to live forever.”…

I was wrong. There is a third kind of bubble, it’s happening spectacularly right now, and we’re going to see it a lot more in the future.

If the first kind of bubble is “everyone thinks the future will be the same”, and the second kind is “everyone thinks the future will be different”, the third kind is “everyone thinks the future doesn’t matter.”…

I’m sure most of you have heard of the Wallstreetbets subreddit by now; if you haven’t, the best way I know how to explain it is that it’s like “multiplayer Jackass for the stock market.”

Wallstreetbets started as a bunch of random internet yahoos bragging about crazy YOLO trades they’d make (and would actually follow through on!), and what enormous percentages of their net worth they’d win or lose spectacularly. I really do think that Jackass is a good comparison here. Yes, these people are trying to get rich; but more importantly, they’re trying to provoke reactions. It’s a game of who can be the most shocking. There’s really not much difference between reading some of these WSB posts and watching an old Jackass sketch. You’ll laugh until you can’t breathe, and then keep laughing when you realize someone actually got kicked in the crotch that hard.

But as it got more popular, some actually sophisticated (and supremely aggressive) traders are getting in on the fun, and it got highly competitive and weird. It’s the newest version of “the stock market as full-contact sports with legal gambling”, and it’s a lot of fun. No one here cares about valuation or fundamentals. It is explicitly a casino. Everyone is here to get in and out of a position in the most shocking way possible. And, astoundingly, there’s enough AUM getting accumulated behind these bets that it can actually start to move individual stocks in weird ways.

The groundwork for this strange show has been built up over a few years, but when the pandemic hit, all hell broke loose. A perfect storm of events come together: first, generational volatility in the stock market as everyone tried to get in front of (and then out from) a global pandemic; second, everyone getting quarantined at home and desperate to feel something, and third: no sports.

Enter Hertz. Hertz was in trouble anyway; it’s carrying around a ton of debt to pay for a fleet of cars that no one wants to drive, because we have Uber now. When the pandemic hit, they got called on their debt, couldn’t make it work, so they had to declare bankruptcy and start a restructuring process.

But then weird things started to happen. Hertz’s stock, which is presumably worthless, starts to go up. And up. And up. It gets bid up a whole 500% over a 3-day period last week. What is going on?

There’s no way to describe it other than, this is a Jackass sketch taking place. It started out as these internet YOLO traders playing an increasingly stupid game of chicken. But then it… caught on? Other people started to get in on this too. Hey, obviously the stock in the long run is worth zero. Everyone knows that. But it’s going up, and tomorrow it might go up more. If this were just some dumb penny stock with a cool story attached to it, that’d be old news. This is different.

When you see a stock getting bid up like this, the only conclusion you can draw is “The future does not matter, because in between now and then, this is explicitly just spinning a roulette wheel. The stock could go up or down, who knows, but at least you know it has nothing to do with the underlying value of the stock (which we all know is zero!), and everything to do with other gamblers.

So Hertz sees this happening, and they’re like, well, if there’s demand for our stock, we should go sell some! I mean, it’s a ridiculous kind of demand, and it’s not “real” demand, but hey, maybe it’s real enough. So Hertz files, and is granted, an emergency request to their bankruptcy judge to issue a billion dollars worth of new stock in order to take advantage of whatever this is. Tom Lauria, one of the attorneys representing Hertz, had an all-timer line: “New platforms for day traders may be facilitating this. There are forces at work that us non-financial people, that we can only observe.” The SEC, presumably between gasps of laughter, declined to weigh in on whether the transaction was legal, saying “it is up to the company to comply with securities law.”

Just to restate how funny this is: Hertz is granted permission, by their own bankruptcy judge, to sell stock in their company which has already declared bankruptcy, because due to weird mojo in the universe, there’s a small army of reddit trolls playing chicken with each other and it just might save the company. Financial Twitter goes crazy, and (of course!) people start bidding up stocks of other bankrupt companies. It was a great day to be online…

Eminently worth reading in full– the ever-illuminating Alex Danco on the emergence of a new kind of financial bubble: “Never Hertz to Ask.”

See also “Speculative Booms” in Jamie Catherwood’s “The State of the Market” (and then, here); plus “Hertz share issue: demolition derby” and “Trading Sportsbooks for Brokerages, Bored Bettors Wager on Stocks.”

And experts suggest that there’s going to be more–lots more– scope for creativity: “A Tidal Wave of Bankruptcies Is Coming.”

* Popular American song; music by John Kellette; lyrics credited to “Jaan Kenbrovin” — actually a collective pseudonym for the writers James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent, combining the first three letters of each lyricist’s last name. The number was debuted in the Broadway musical The Passing Show of 1918

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As we pucker up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that Penn Central, a century-old American railroad company, declared Section 77 bankruptcy, the largest ever U.S. corporate bankruptcy up to that date.  They did not use the occasion to issue stock, and did later exit bankruptcy, and were ultimately folded into Conrail, the U.S. government’s railroad holding company.

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Written by LW

June 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

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