What Today's Robinhood Rally Has in Common With the Last Crypto Boom

The pandemic's "Robinhood Rally" has echoes of the 2017 crypto boom and could presage new investment trends in digital asset and traditional markets.

AccessTimeIconAug 12, 2020 at 1:38 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:42 a.m. UTC
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Jill Carlson, a CoinDesk columnist, is co-founder of the Open Money Initiative, a non-profit research organization working to guarantee the right to a free and open financial system. She is also an investor in early-stage startups with Slow Ventures. 

Everywhere you look, everyone is talking about Robinhood. At this point, the story is well told.

In March, Americans were told to stay at home. The basketball season was called off. President Donald Trump’s daily briefings became the new national form of entertainment. And the stock market lost almost a third of its value.

Across the country, people downloaded Robinhood, the user-friendly investing tool that makes stock trading more fun than a game of Space Invaders. Some got involved as a replacement for sports betting, given no games would be played for the foreseeable future. Others became active on the app after they watched their tried-and-true strategy of holding the S&P index meltdown over the previous weeks. It was time to take matters in hand. Many started trading purely for the dopamine hit.

Robinhood, and the rest of the brokerage space, has been reaping the rewards of this trend. Robinhood doubled its trading revenue in the second quarter, and more old-school competitors like TD Ameritrade and E-Trade saw their own numbers jump by more than 50%.

There is an exciting argument that this rise in retail trading activity will flow from the stock market into the crypto markets. Indeed, the recent upticks in prices and volumes among bitcoin, ether and a whole range of other cryptocurrencies would suggest this is already occurring.

I believe the “Robinhood Rally” is likely a harbinger of things to come for cryptocurrency. And this is true across regulatory treatment, consumer behavior and market movement.

I also believe the “Robinhood Rally” is a reflection of the cryptocurrency industry’s past. In many ways, crypto markets deserve credit for paving the way for this new trading trend.

You cannot talk about the Robinhood craze without talking about the Reddit page: wallstreetbets. WSB, as the community is often called, is a group where day traders go to brag, share memes and show off battle scars from the markets. This group has both driven and drafted off of Robinhood’s success.

The Robinhood Rally is a reflection of the cryptocurrency industry’s past. In many ways, crypto markets deserve credit for paving the way for this new trading trend.

I will confess, I was relatively late to the WSB craze. The page has been around since 2012, but I only first checked it out last year as it was starting to gain real popularity. From the moment I set eyes on the WSB conversations (if you can call them that), I was struck by clear parallels to early BitcoinTalk forums.

The tone of the group shares the same mix of irreverence, absurdity and occasional surprising displays of sophistication that featured on BitcoinTalk. On BitcoinTalk, memes like “HODL” developed organically out of “shitposts” shared by frequently pseudonymous users. On WSB, similarly pseudonymous users craft memes intentionally and stoke their virality. Their gains earn them “tendies” (yes, this is literally short for chicken tenders). They fondly refer to each other as “autists”. And not a day goes by that this group of “degens” doesn’t talk about “J. Pow” and his “money printer".

BitcoinTalk has never just been about prices and trading and neither is WSB, though naturally these are dominant topics. WSB frequently delves into company fundamentals, politics and macroeconomic discussion, with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy.

Davey Day Trader similarly must be mentioned in any conversation about the retail rally of the last six months. The founder of Barstool Sports, the site that delivers all manner of content and news with a frat bro swagger and a Boston accent, pivoted from sports to stocks at the start of COVID-19. He streams videos of himself as he day-trades markets, hammer in hand.

Here, I could trace Davey Day Trader to the many crypto YouTube celebrities who share their technical insights and their trading strategies. These types of YouTube stars have long existed for the stock market as well. The difference with Davey – and the similarity he bears to his crypto counterparts – lies more in tone than medium. Davey Day Trader’s very logo shows him as a football star end-running an angry group of boomer bankers. It is this anti-banker, anti-establishment attitude, branding and marketing that Davey and his followers most notably share with crypto.

WSB and Davey Day Trader are only two of several phenomena around this market that can be pattern-matched to earlier practices in cryptocurrency communities. Three years ago, during the height of the crypto bull market, the narrative of the gamification of trading emerged. Coinbase, Bitmex, Poloniex, Binance and others came under some fire for mis-incentivizing and insufficiently educating users. That foreshadowed the criticism Robinhood has faced more recently about incentives and education.

So if the products, culture and behavior of cryptocurrency are a precursor for those of mainstream markets, what is to come? I believe we will see the continued emergence of pseudonymous forums where traders will be judged on their track records (or their memes) as opposed to the prestige of their fund. Financial media of the future might look more like Crypto Twitter, dominated by animal avatars and joke names, than CNBC. 

We may also see the rise of tip jars for trading insights, a regular feature on the landing pages of crypto traders and technicians. Also missing from the retail environment today is a dominant social feature. Poloniex’s trollbox was a beloved feature for traders who enjoyed real-time market banter, bragging and bad-mouthing. More privately, Telegram groups have served crypto traders for years – both in executing trades and also in sharing market insights. I am looking forward to these types of real-time chat experiences coming to mainstream retail trading.

Crypto markets in 2016 and 2017 have in many ways foreshadowed the stock market of today. There is inspiration there, but there are also lessons. Regulation will be an issue for companies building these products as consumer protection takes center stage and scrutiny from policymakers increases. Asymmetry of information, pumps-and-dumps and shameless shilling are, at a minimum, annoyances and, at most, serious ethical concerns that will plague markets as retail activity soars. And, of course, there is perhaps the biggest lesson of all for anyone building in this space: Markets come and go, and when the bull turns to bear some – but not all – users will go with it.


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