Vlad Tenev, CEO and Co-Founder of Robinhood, in his office on July 15, 2021 in Menlo Park, California.
Kimberly White | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Robinhood executives had a lot to talk about the week Reddit users were driving a historic short squeeze in GameStop.
New documents in a lawsuit allegedly show internal conversations between executives panicking over how to meet financial requirements, debating the severity of a Reddit-driven short squeeze and contradicting the CEO’s public statements.
Plaintiffs in the claim, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida, allege they suffered damages when Robinhood enacted trading restrictions on Jan. 28 amid volatile activity in GameStop and other meme stocks. They are suing for damages, interest and attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs are also seeking class action status.
“As a brokerage firm, we have many financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits,” the brokerage said in a Jan. 28 blog post addressing the trading restrictions. “Some of these requirements fluctuate based on volatility in the markets and can be substantial in the current environment.”
According to the suit, in one instance, Robinhood Chief Operating Officer Gretchen Howard messaged internally that the start-up was facing a “major liquidity crisis.” Publicly, the company’s chief executive said the opposite.
“There was no liquidity problem,” CEO Vlad Tenev told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin a day later, on Jan. 29.
Sharp rise in trading volume
Robinhood and other brokerage firms saw unprecedented trading volume in January around heavily shorted stocks, including GameStop and AMC. The brokerage start-up, which has to deposit money to a clearinghouse based on the volume of trades, said it restricted buying of certain securities because the firm was unable to meet deposit requirements. These requirements increase when volatility goes up in case of large losses by options trades.
“This clearing thing seems pretty scary to me — I would say this is our biggest fire right now,” Robinhood’s director of engineering allegedly said in a Slack message, adding that the company could see a margin call of hundreds of millions of dollars. “In the worst case scenario we max out our credit lines and they liquidate our positions.”
According to the suit, David Dusseault, chief operating officer of subsidiary Robinhood Financial, said the company was “to [sic] big for them to actually shut us down,” referring to the National Securities Clearing Corp., a provider of centralized clearing services. In the same conversation, another executive, whose name is redacted, said “we’re going to get crucified” for stopping trades, according to the complaint.
‘A tidal wave of volume and volatility’
The chats were part of the discovery process in a lawsuit against Robinhood. An attorney for the plaintiffs argued that Robinhood knew the Reddit-driven chaos was coming and didn’t do enough.
“Robinhood and its higher-ups were well aware of this tidal wave of volume and volatility that was heading in their direction,” Maurice Pessah, founder of Pessah Law Group, told CNBC. “In our opinion and as we allege in the lawsuit, they didn’t do their jobs and what they are required to do in terms of analyzing risks and managing risks as a broker.”
In response, Robinhood said it disputes the plaintiff allegations and stands by public statements regarding Jan. 28. A company spokesperson said “the communications are consistent with Robinhood’s focus to take appropriate, incremental measures to mitigate risk.”
In another excerpt, data scientists and Tenev debated how intense the Reddit frenzy could get, according to the suit.
“Maybe I am being alarmist but I think we should consider all-hands on deck kind of situation and shuffle some priorities to deal with increasing volumes,” Robinhood’s director of engineering allegedly wrote. The company’s head of data science responded “you may not be being an alarmist” after seeing a chart showing the spike in volume, plaintiffs alleged.
“Today was a huge day. There are internal things that are starting to buckle under pressure,” another software engineer said, according to the suit.
Tenev allegedly responded that “only the paranoid survive.” His response to a comment that “one who panics first panics best” was “joy.”
In another message, the company acknowledged “blowback from this is going to be exponentially worse as time goes on” and they “were worried about the long term affects [sic] of this,” according to the suit.
In the months that followed these conversations, Robinhood’s CEO as well as the CEOs of Citadel and Melville Capital testified in front of Congress. Tenev told the representatives that the GameStop mania was a 1 in 3.5 million event, which he called “unmodelable” and that Robinhood’s risk management processes kicked in as they were meant to. In order to meet capital requirements and shore up its balance sheet, Robinhood raised more than $3.4 billion in a matter of days.
The company went on to a blockbuster public listing in August.
Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler is expected to publish a report on the GameStop saga in the coming weeks, as well as recommendations on what, if any, changes should be made to the U.S. trading system as a result.