Redditors in the irony-poisoned Wall Street Bets (r/wallstreetbets) community discovered an exploit in the investing app Robinhood they’ve named “infinite leverage” that enables them to lose huge sums of money at record speeds.
Robinhood is a mobile brokerage app that allows users to trade stocks and options without commission fees. Understanding Robinhood as an attempt to gamify stock trading helps clarify why members of WSB were are so eager to find hacks, glitches, and oversights in the software. It’s a game to them.
The core of the cheat code is that those with Robinhood Gold—a membership program for users who have at least $2,000 deposited and pay $10 per month—are able to trade on “margin.” This means they are allowed to essentially take out a line of credit from Robinhood to buy stocks. The exploit allowed users then sell “covered call” contracts with money borrowed from Robinhood, then borrow even more money after the cash from the sale is added to their account. A “covered call” contract is a strategy where the trader owns a stock, then sells "call options" for the same stock—options are contracts that give you the right to trade said stocks at a certain price before a certain date.
This sounds really complicated because it’s stock market jargony. In practice, here’s what’s happening: If you deposit $2,000, then you can buy $4,000 of stock on margin. You can then sell covered calls on that stock, receiving a premium now, and the strike price when the option is exercised (a strike price is the price at which a trader agrees to execute a trade.) The Robinhood system, for some reason, recognizes this as you both owning the stock and having cash from the sale of the option, even though you’ve agreed to sell those stocks via the covered call. Essentially, you could repeat this over and over, allowing you to increase your leverage, or spending power, meaning you could gamble infinite amounts of Robinhood’s money.
Reddit user /u/ControlTheNarrative wrote a week ago that he was able to deposit $2,000 into his account and flip it into $50,000 worth of stock. Two other users—/u/MoonYachts and /u/woodc93—showed less restrain; each of them turned their respective $4,000 and $15,000 deposits into over $1 million positions. Each of these users posted screenshots and videos to show that they had indeed abused the exploit, though I suppose anything can be faked. In any case, Robinhood acknowledged that the exploit exists to Bloomberg.
If this sounds like free money, it absolutely is not. According to a post called "GUH of Fame" honoring the redditors, uhh, courageous enough to try this, they've all lost tens of thousands of dollars more than they bet with. The “GUH” refers to the audible gasp (gulp?) /u/ControlTheNarrative made at the precise moment he found himself in the hole for tens of thousands of dollars he did not have.
This hasn’t deterred users, who are figuring out new exploits for the “infinite money cheat code”—one user jokingly (or seriously) proposed they use the trick to buy enough shares of a company to effectively force Robinhood into a hostile takeover “then short the shit out of the company on another broker ofc.”
Some users are joking about pronouncing their usernames to help lawyers taking screenshots or commenting for the chance to go to an inevitable deposition. Another user claiming to be a former compliance officer with Fidelity Investments gave a few paragraphs of clarification that amounted to "You're fucked kid." I think it’s safe to say that’s true for everyone involved, not only because they lost tens of thousands but because what they did is very likely illegal.
One user, whose tag in WSB is now "filthy SEC snitch" on the subreddit, revealed that he had made a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but had been beaten to the punch by two other redditors.
“Robinhood Markets Inc is violating article §220.122 of the Code of Federal Regulations due to its inaccurate buying power calculations when selling/writing deep ITM covered calls on a margin account, known as ‘Robinhood Gold,’" u/69SassyPoptarts writes. ”Robinhood is clearly violating Federal Regulation T, as these traders are easily trading with over 25x margin leverage, as opposed to the 2x allowed by the regulation.”
“We’re aware of the isolated situations and communicating directly with customers,” a Robinhood spokesperson told Bloomberg.
What happens next? Who knows. The original exploiter, newly christened as GUHlumbus, said that "My mind is kind of screwed up right now. Why did I do this? Because I could. ... I love margin trading though and as soon as as [sic] I grind out the minimum amount of capital (through wagery or loan) I will try again."