Robinhood backlash: What you should know about the GameStop stock controversy

Lawmakers, regulators and Reddit aren't happy with the popular investing app.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
Expertise Video Games | Misinformation | Conspiracy Theories | Cryptocurrency | NFTs | Movies | TV | Economy | Stocks
David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
Oscar Gonzalez
David Priest
6 min read

Robinhood users aren't so merry. 

James Martin/CNET

Popular investing app Robinhood became the focus of the controversy after it decided to freeze trades for GameStop on Jan. 28. Shares of the video game retailer spiked after traders on Reddit began frantically buying the company's stock. GameStop shares have since came crashing down only to shoot up once again. 

Robinhood played a critical role when a group of Reddit posters saw an opportunity to make money while also giving a jab to Wall Street and hedge funds. However, Robinhood made the surprising move to restrict buying GameStop citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory requirements. Due to its part in the trading frenzy, Robinhood has been scrutinized by its users, regulators and lawmakers. 

We have some answers for the big questions about Robinhood, the actions it took and what might happen next. 

Read more: Best robo-advisors

Watch this: What does GameStop's skyrocketing stock have to do with a subreddit?

What is Robinhood? 

Robinhood is an investing app that launched in 2015. It's popular among millennials, who make up a majority of its users and can conduct a variety of investments for free. Read more about Robinhood here

What happened with Robinhood and GameStop? 

On the morning of Jan. 28, Robinhood posted a blog saying it was limiting users by preventing them from buying stocks from several companies such as GameStop, AMC and Nokia . It cited "market volatility" as its reasoning and would only allow customers to sell their shares of these companies, not buy or trade in any other way (more below). 

"In light of recent volatility, we are restricting transactions for certain securities to position closing only, including $AMC, $BB, $BBBY, $EXPR, $GME, $KOSS, $NAKD and $NOK," Robinhood said. In addition to AMC; Bed, Bath and Beyond; GameStop and Nokia, the companies that Robinhood listed by ticker symbol are phone maker BlackBerry, fashion retailer Express, headphone maker Koss and underwear company Naked Brand Group.

Why did Robinhood stop users from buying GameStop shares? 

On Jan. 29, Robinhood posted another blog about what happened. The company explained it was required to keep a substantial amount of money on hand in order to process all the trades happening through its clearinghouse, which is the part of the company that sends shares and money back and forth to other clearinghouses to complete trades. 

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev went into more specifics when he jumped on the Good Time Show with Tesla CEO Elon Musk via the exclusive audio-only Clubhouse app on Jan. 31.

"At 3:30 a.m. Pacific, our operations receives a file from the NSCC, which is the National Securities Clearing Corporation," he said during the show. "So they gave us a file with a deposit, and the request was around $3 billion, which is about an order of magnitude more than it typically is." 

Tenev provided some context by saying that, up to that point, Robinhood had raised just $2 billion in capital. He went on to explain that the NSCC has a formula to determine how much a deposit it needed and one component of it involved risk, which can act as a kind of multiplier. 

"We had no choice in this case," he said. "We had to conform to our regulatory capital requirements." 

Tenev said that since then, the agency has worked with Robinhood to decrease the amount of funds needed. The company also raised $1 billion in emergency capital to make sure customers' trades can happen. 

When did Robinhood let investors trade GameStop shares again?

Robinhood sent an email to customers in the afternoon of Jan. 28 saying it would allow "limited buys" of those company stock starting the next day. The limits included a maximum number of shares users could own (at one point it was down to one GameStop share), no trading options, no borrowing money on credit also known as margin, recurring investments were skipped and no fractional shares, which are slices of a stock that can be bought for as little as a dollar. 

As of Feb. 3, Robinhood increased the maximum of shares allowed for all the companies, with GameStop's limit up to 500 shares total. The other restrictions are still in place. 

Who's mad at Robinhood? 

A ton of people. The subreddit behind the GameStop's skyrocketing share value, r/WallStreetBets, includes big users of Robinhood who felt they were slighted by the decision. 

The subreddit's Twitter account said the freeze harmed small traders and favored the Wall Street establishment. "Individual investors are being stripped of their ability to trade on [the Robinhood app]," the tweet said. "Meanwhile, hedge funds and institutional investors can continue to trade as normal."

Robinhood users flooded the Google Play Store and Apple's App Store with negative app reviews. There were so many one-star ratings that Google intervened to remove tens of thousands of them

There's was also a lawsuit filed on Jan. 28 in the Southern District of New York accusing Robinhood of "purposefully, willfully, and knowingly removing the stock 'GME' from its trading platform in the midst of an unprecedented stock rise ... deprived retail investors of the ability to invest in the open-market."

Several members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Sen. Ted Cruz, called for a hearing on Robinhood's actions. 

The New York attorney general says she will review what Robinhood did while the Texas attorney general launched an investigation.

And the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees the stock market , released a statement that didn't name Robinhood but said it will "closely review actions taken by regulated entities that may disadvantage investors or otherwise unduly inhibit their ability to trade certain securities." 

SEC investigators are already reviewing social media and Reddit posts for any signs of fraud according to a report from Bloomberg. The commission also met with newly appointed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to discuss the market volatility surrounding GameStop as reported on by Reuters

Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California and chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, held a hearing about Robinhood's actions called Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide. The chief executives of Reddit, Robinhood, Citadel and Melvin Capital, along with the Reddit poster who spearheaded the GameStop buying frenzy, were all in attendance at the hearing through video conferencing.

While the executives were questioned by the committee, not much new information was uncovered in the five hours. 

Following the hearing and a lawsuit by the family of one app user who committed suicide, Robinhood said it would invest in its customer service support. The legal action against the investing platform focuses on how Alex Kearns, a 20-year-old customer, didn't hear back from the company after the app showed he had racked up $730,000 in losses. Robinhood's customer service did eventually respond to the issue and confirmed he didn't owe the money, but it was too late. 

On Feb. 26, Robinhood confirmed it was working with US regulators, state attorneys and the SEC on various inquiries about the company's practices as reported by Yahoo Finance.  

What other investing services restricted trades like Robinhood? 

Other investing apps and services also had issues with clearing trades similar to Robinhood. Cash App tweeted it would not process trades for AMC and Nokia due to their broker, Axos, halting trades. 

"The clearing broker who processes our trades, Axos, has temporarily halted buys of $AMC & $NOK," the company tweeted. "This was not Cash App's decision -- we disagree with this move wholeheartedly. We hope to make these stocks available for purchase again as soon as possible."

A Cash App blog post explained further saying that the Depository Trust Company (DTC) informed Axos it would need to significantly increase capital requirements for the trades it would be processing. 

Webull is another investing app that tweeted Jan. 28 it had begun restricting trades on shares of GameStop, AMC and Koss. Webull cited the "extreme volatility" of the stocks in limiting user transactions to closing positions. It later removed those restrictions the same day. Webull CEO Anthony Denier said the company's clearing firm also received notice it would need to increase its capital requirements significantly in order to accommodate all the trades, which led to the temporary halt in trading on those volatile stocks. 

TD Ameritrade, another brokerage, said Jan. 27 it would put restrictions on the trading of stocks for GameStop, AMC and others. The brokerage firm confirmed the restrictions, saying it made the decisions "out of an abundance of caution amid unprecedented market conditions and other factors." The limits included increasing the amount needed to borrow on margin and limiting other trade options such as short sales. 

Charles Schwab, Interactive Brokers, E-Trade and Public were other investing services that also limited trading last week because of market volatility. 

Correction, Jan. 28: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said TD Ameritrade had restricted new purchases of GameStop and AMC stocks. It's restricting certain trades, but users are still able to purchase new shares from those companies.