Robinhood CEO Tells Portnoy Limits Prevented Liquidity Crunch
(Bloomberg) -- Robinhood Markets’ decision to restrict buying of GameStop Corp. shares and other “meme” stocks last month ensured the retail brokerage wouldn’t face a liquidity crunch.
In a live interview Tuesday night, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy pressed Robinhood Chief Executive Officer Vlad Tenev on one of the main questions that have haunted his firm since it restricted customers from trading GameStop during a Reddit-fueled frenzy last month. It was a precautionary move to meet deposit requirements and prevent a “liquidity issue,” he said.
“If we had a bunch more headroom, yes, we probably would have let things continue,” Tenev said. “We very likely could have faced a liquidity issue in the future. We had to act to protect the firm and our customers.”
During a fiery 40-minute interview, Portnoy, who has been a fierce critic of Tenev and Robinhood, pressed the CEO for more answers on why the company failed to allow customers to freely trade and communicate the issues it was facing more clearly. He also asked why it hadn’t provided more transparency on its liquidity situation.
“The L word is a big thing in financial services,” Tenev said. “‘Liquidity issue’ means you can’t meet your capital requirements or your deposit requirements, and you’re essentially dead. That was not the case with Robinhood. We met our capital requirements, we met our deposit requirements.”
Portnoy has described Robinhood’s restriction to halt buy-side trading as “flat out criminal” and called for people to be jailed over the scandal. At times, he’s called Tenev a liar and accused him of siding with short sellers.
“You know everybody watching this hates your guts right,” Portnoy said.
“That’s what I hear,” Tenev responded.
Within the first few minutes of the interview, Portnoy called Tenev a “rat” and played an edited video of the Robinhood CEO depicted as a clown. He said the brokerage turned its back to its customers and “killed the little guy” by causing stocks to crater. When he pressed Tenev on why Robinhood didn’t also restrict the selling of shares to freeze the market, the executive responded it was to protect long positions.
“I flat reject this theory, that’s why people are so mad,” Portnoy said.
Tenev pushed back on the criticism. He said the decision to restrict trading was to meet deposit requirements for clearinghouses and once again that there was no collusion between Robinhood and any hedge fund or market maker. He told Portnoy that until recently he hadn’t heard of Melvin Capital Management, which lost billions closing out its GameStop position and reducing other wagers.
Tenev confronted Portnoy for insinuating in previous tweets that Melvin or Citadel Securities had anything to do with Robinhood’s decisions, saying he was “wrong to do that” and that it was “irresponsible.”
“We’re in a super-highly regulated industry,” Tenev said. “My business is all about giving the little guy access to trade, right, so why would I hurt my own business?”
Along with his team, Tenev was monitoring the WallStreetBets forum on Reddit the week of Jan. 28, he said. In response to the trading frenzy, Robinhood set margin requirements at 100%, forcing customers to pay upfront to buy GameStop and other shares. Still, the brokerage was witnessing “incredible growth” because of the hype. It was the first time that something going viral on social media transplanted over to the financial markets, and the structure of the system has to be improved to prevent any future scandals, Tenev said.
“Customers buying meme stocks rests on a foundation of our business being able to operate, which rests on a foundation of the financial system working,” he said.
The event was the result of several exchanges between the two on Twitter Tuesday, with Portnoy sharing a screenshot of a direct message he sent Tenev asking him to come onto his podcast. Tenev agreed, tweeting ahead of the event “looking forward to discussing Bulgarian pizza and other things tonight.”
By the end of the interview, the Robinhood CEO, who was wearing a hat that read “Taco Tuesday” on it, said he only wore the hat to cover his hair because Portnoy had made fun of it during the GameStop House Financial Services hearing last week.
“Vlad, your hair, it looks normal here,” Portnoy said. “It looked like, your scalp, somebody took a wig and put it on, I mean it was a ridiculous look.”
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