Robinhood could learn a thing or two from Warren Buffett

·4 min read

A series of skirmishes thrust Robinhood's growing pains into public view once again this week, underscoring the company’s mounting policy risks. 

A week ago, the online brokerage was criticized by the most respected investor in America, Warren Buffett, who worried that the platform caters to a gambling instinct and turns stocks into casino chips.

A day later, Robinhood blasted the "elites," who it believes are standing in the way of open market access.

"If the last year has taught us anything, it is that people are tired of the Warren Buffetts and Charlie Mungers of the world acting like they are the only oracles of investing," Jacqueline Ortiz Ramsay, Robinhood head of public policy communications, wrote in a blog post.

Then on Tuesday, Robinhood's nascent crypto trading service temporarily crashed amid a frenzy for dogecoin. (For the uninitiated, dogecoin is a cryptocurrency created as a joke that is an homage to a meme of a Shiba Inu.) Robinhood was later forced to defend itself against an accusation that it was a "dogecoin whale" that holds around $25 billion of the cryptocurrency.

Gary Gensler, chairman of the SEC, testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday about the risks posed by Robinhood.

Like Buffett, Gensler is concerned that platforms like Robinhood turn stocks into a game, prompting users to make more trades. This heightened activity is then made profitable through payment for order flow, a controversial practice of routing trades to market makers in exchange for cash.

Robinhood reportedly earned $331 million from payment for order flow in the most recent quarter. Of that, nearly two-thirds is said to have come from options trading.

Robinhood can write off Buffett, but not the SEC. And it would do well to heed the Oracle of Omaha's advice: "We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful." There are many signs that we are living in greedy times, and that should make Robinhood fearful.

The Federal Reserve this week warned that frothy asset prices were "vulnerable to significant declines should investor risk appetite fall." It's not just public equities: Venture capital valuations grew sharply in the first quarter to build on last year's already elevated figures, especially for large late-stage rounds, according to the latest PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor. As for cryptocurrencies, well, you know that story. 

For better or worse, Robinhood has emerged as a home for the greedy. In a seemingly fearless market, its customer base has ballooned to more than 13 million.

As Robinhood prepares for an IPO later this year, the company might consider what will happen—and who might get blamed—if and when that greed turns to fear. In a stock rout, will the hordes of meme stock traders follow Buffett's oft-quoted advice, or will they panic and sell?

A market correction could be a bloodbath for novice day traders, especially those who trade options or on margin. If the GameStop saga is any indication, regulators and politicians have already selected Robinhood as their favorite scapegoat.

Here’s a modest proposal: Instead of sparring with Buffett, the company could use its platform to encourage the sort of common sense behavior that he has long proselytized. Robinhood already knows how to do this. The company's gamified interface can be used for good by implementing behavioral tricks that nudge people toward longer holding periods, diversified portfolios and other sensible goals.

Criticism aside, Robinhood has much to celebrate, and it deserves credit for introducing a new generation of investors to equities. Moreover, its plan that reportedly would allow users to participate in upcoming IPOs—including its own—could be revolutionary.

It is unclear how dependent Robinhood's business model is on active trading, or whether it can wean itself off the fat checks that payment for order flow provides. 

But the company’s upcoming S-1 filing should clarify the matter by showing just how important those order flow payments are. It may be that long-term investors aren't a particularly good fit for Robinhood's business. 

Even if that's the case, Robinhood would be wise to put its users' financial health first, protecting both a generation of investors and its own self-interest. 

As Buffett has said, "The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging."

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