The Pros Are Now Paying Attention To Day Traders
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The Pros Are Now Paying Attention To Day Traders

Last year, an army of day traders turned markets upside down. This year, professional fund managers are keeping tabs.

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 17, 2022 11:22amGrey Clock 4 min

Last year, amateur investors took financial markets by storm. This year, Wall Street professionals are watching them closely.

Fund managers who might have once derided small-time day traders as “dumb money” are scouring social-media posts for clues about where the herd might veer next. Some 85% of hedge funds and 42% of asset managers are now tracking retail-trading message boards, according to a survey by Bloomberg Intelligence.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. in September introduced a new data product that includes information on which securities individual investors are likely buying and selling, as well as which sectors and stocks are being talked about on social media. About 50 clients, including some of the largest asset and quant managers, are testing the product, the bank says. JPMorgan equity traders are also using it to help manage their own risk.

“The flow from retail is not something you can ignore if you are a professional investor,” says Chris Berthe, JPMorgan’s global co-head of cash equities trading. “It’s a whole new investor class that has emerged, and it’s an investor class that’s actually getting themes right.”

Rookies rush in

The shift illustrates just how much the rookies have changed the investing landscape. A year ago, market observers were questioning if the retail revolution would continue. Now many are asking what it will look like this year.

After shying away from active investing for much of the past decade, millions of Americans, hunkered down at home because of Covid-19, became day traders in 2020. Enticed by volatile markets and phone apps that made it free to trade stocks, they flocked to social media for investing ideas. That year, they piled into stocks like Hertz Global Holdings Inc. (and ultimately were rewarded when the car-rental company exited bankruptcy). It is estimated that more than 10 million individual investors opened new brokerage accounts in 2020, according to Devin Ryan, director of financial-technology research at JMP Securities.

Last year the trends from 2020 accelerated. JMP Securities estimates that a further 15 million Americans signed up for brokerage accounts in 2021. Social-media forums became increasingly used for trading. Some individual investors used their growing numbers to send stocks including GameStop Corp. and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. flying. Many newbies relished in inflicting steep losses on some hedge funds and demonstrating that traditional playbooks aren’t the only way to win.

Investments that made little sense on paper became valuable in 2021 because day traders declared them so. Joke cryptocurrencies such as dogecoin—up more than 1,900% in the past year based on late Friday levels—minted self-proclaimed millionaires. A market for nonfungible tokens (NFTs), or digital images of items such as bored-ape avatars, exploded.

JPMorgan estimates that individual investors accounted for more than a third of daily trading activity several times over the past 18 months, reaching nearly 40% of shares traded on peak days.

To be sure, many of the newbies lost money. Some took on debt without understanding what they were doing, leaving them vulnerable to steep losses when stock prices fell. Riskier investing strategies, including options trading, exploded. Many amateur investors bought into buzzy shares near the top of rallies, only to watch the prices rapidly plummet.

Individual traders in 2021 purchased a net $292 billion of U.S. stocks and exchange-traded funds, according to Vanda Research’s VandaTrack platform, which tracks and sells data on the purchases of U.S. equities by individual investors. That is more than seven times the amount in 2019. Individual investors so far appear poised to continue similar levels of buying activity in 2022.

Analysts expect a bumpier road ahead for U.S. stocks this year, and some money managers believe that any prolonged volatility could wash individual investors out of the market. Many say that today’s activity resembles the late 1990s, when individual investors piled into trading only to flee when the dot-com bubble burst.

So far, individual investors have shown a strong stomach for bumpy days. Last year, the group’s eight largest buying days by dollar volume occurred when the S&P 500 sank 1.3% or more, VandaTrack data show. Several academic papers have found that individual investors have at times helped stabilize markets, providing liquidity in times of volatility.

The big names notice

By some accounts, the newbie investors have already altered some professional investors’ trading strategies. One way in particular: the way some make bearish bets.

Meme stocks like GameStop had high levels of short interest before they caught the attention of Reddit traders. That means that other investors—usually professionals, like hedge funds—were betting those stocks would fall. When shorting a stock, an investor borrows shares of a company and sells them, hoping to buy them back later at a lower price.

When the amateurs sent GameStop and other stocks soaring, the short sellers were sometimes forced to buy back shares, often at much higher prices.

These days, investors are avoiding taking big chances with their short-selling plays, according to an analysis by Ihor Dusaniwsky. He is head of predictive analytics at S3 Partners, a technology and data analytics firm that closely tracks activity by short sellers.

Just seven stocks in the U.S. market had short interest of 40% or more at the end of 2021, according to his analysis of stocks where at least $10 million of shares had been sold short. That was down from 40 stocks at the beginning of January 2020 and 19 stocks in January 2021. And unlike the previous periods, no stocks in his analysis had short interest of 70% or more at the end of 2021.

Last year, S3 started offering new tools that tell clients which stocks have crowded levels of short interest and which could leave them vulnerable to sudden losses if individual investors pile in.

“In the back of every hedge fund’s mind is, ‘I don’t want to be on the wrong side of a meme-stock play,’ ” Mr. Dusaniwsky says. “It’s a full-time job to make sure you don’t get hit by a bus.”

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Jan 16, 2022.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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