Depending on whom you ask, the stock trading app Robinhood has either democratized Wall Street trading or launched a generation of unsavvy investors who have become addicted to the promise of quick cash.
The tension looms as Robinhood is set to make its debut on the Nasdaq on Thursday under the symbol HOOD, raising the profile of a company that has become a household name during the pandemic – while also attracting intense regulatory scrutiny.
On Wednesday, Robinhood told its users that it is pricing its initial public offering (IPO) at $38 a share, at the low end of its estimated range. The share price would value Robinhood at around $32 billion.
Robinhood, a Silicon Valley startup that has 22.5 million users with accounts linked to their bank accounts, is allocating more than a third of its shares to its users during its IPO, an unusually high amount that the company says speaks to its mission to empower the average investor.
Yet some users are on the fence about whether to buy any of its stock, even among Robinhood diehards.
"I honestly haven't decided quite yet," says 20-year-old Jacob Frueh in San Diego who uses Robinhood daily and helps runs a Discord server dedicated to investing advice.
Frueh said he has doubts that Robinhood's explosive popularity during the pandemic is something the company can sustain.
"I think that the retail investor boom has relatively passed," Frueh said. "So they may not see as much growth in the future."
Others point to how Robinhood's zero-commission trades are only possible because of a controversial arrangement known as "payment for order flow." By the company's own admission, 81% of its revenue is derived this way.
The setup offers a kickback to Robinhood when it sends a person's stock order made on the app to a Wall Street firm like Citadel Securities to complete. The agreement has drawn critical attention from regulators.
Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler has said this setup raises conflict of interest questions. If regulators moved against it, experts said Robinhood's entire business model could be crippled.
It already reached a $65 million settlement over misleading customers about this practice in December, although Robinhood may not be out of the woods yet.
"I think those conflicts of interest are real and should be scrutinized," says Sinan Aral, director of MIT's Initiative on the Digital Economy. "And Robinhood should be worried about that, since it is such a significant fraction of their revenue."
Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev told Bloomberg worries about Robinhood buckling under regulatory pressure are "baseless," saying that "people don't understand the details" of the controversial arrangement. Tenev said the deal Robinhood has struck with large institutions benefits Robinhood customers.
But in its paperwork filed with the SEC ahead of its public offering, Robinhood said regulating or banning "payment for order flow" would have a "have an outsize impact" on the core of its business.
On Tuesday, Robinhood disclosed that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority was probing the company over why Tenev and Robinhood's other co-founder, Baiju Bhatt, were not registered with the regulatory agency.
Other controversies swirl over role in GameStop frenzy
Robinhood has introduced droves of new people to the stock market.
Tapping into online forums like Reddit at a time when everyone has been spending more time home, the company has assembled a new wave of inexperienced investors who now have the power to move the markets.
The slickly-designed app features neon charts, free stocks for adding friends and the ability to buy or sell with just a few taps.
But that ease of trading has landed the company right into the crosshairs of regulators.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said in an interview that Robinhood has "gamified" trading, leading to catastrophic losses for some, including some squandering their entire life savings.
In another high-profile case, a young man took his own life after thinking he had incurred enormous losses on the app. Robinhood revealed in its IPO filing that it had settled with the young man's family for an undisclosed amount.
"They deliberately go out to entice their customers and rely upon their lack of experience to entice them into buying things that they might not understand," Galvin said.
Galvin's office is suing to have Robinhood banned in the state.
"If their license is revoked here, then other states may as well, and in some cases feel obliged, to follow suit," Galvin said.
On top of this, Robinhood is also facing nearly 50 other lawsuits stemming from the Gamestop stock frenzy earlier this year, a chaotic market event that led to Robinhood halting the buying of the so-called meme stock.
Critics said that hurt Robinhood users and benefited Wall Street firms upon which Robinhood depends.
In an interview in February with Barstool Sports, Tenev defended the company's decision to restrict the buying of GameStop, saying it was done to protect a larger market-wide crisis.
"Customers buying meme stocks rests on a foundation of our business being able to operate, which rests on the foundation of the financial system working," Tenev said.
Tenev remains convinced that Robinhood will survive the legal pressure and emerge as the app of choice among Americans who want to give investing a shot for the first time.
"Investing should be as ubiquitous as shopping online," Tenev has said. "It should just be something that people do."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Depending on who you ask, the stock trading app Robinhood has democratized Wall Street trading or captured nonsavvy investors who are hooked on making quick cash. Today, the company makes its debut on Nasdaq, just as regulators challenge its core business practices. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: When college student Jacob Frueh opens up Robinhood, he sees neon-colored charts on how his stock is trading. He can invite a friend to the app and get a free stock. But right now he's curious about his Airbnb investment, so he takes a look.
JACOB FRUEH: It's down 0.53% today and is currently trading at $138.51.
ALLYN: Frueh is a business major at Northeastern University. But from the classroom, the world of finance was daunting. Robinhood broke down all the barriers.
FRUEH: And it seemed like this just crazy career where you had to know so much, and Robinhood allowed me to begin trading without, you know, learning how to use a Bloomberg terminal.
ALLYN: Robinhood has made trading stocks as easy as buying a credit on "Candy Crush," so much so that Frueh is among the 22 million users who now trade stocks on the app. That's up from 7 million just last year. Here's Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev speaking on Bloomberg.
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VLAD TENEV: Investing should be as ubiquitous as shopping online. It should just be something that people do.
ALLYN: Robinhood has introduced droves of new people to the stock market. Tapping into online forums like Reddit at a time when everyone spent more time home, the company has assembled a new generation of mostly young, inexperienced investors who now have the power to move markets. But is Robinhood exploiting these people? Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin thinks so. He says Robinhood has gamified trading, and that's led to catastrophic losses for some.
WILLIAM GALVIN: They deliberately go out to entice their customers and rely upon their lack of experience to entice them into buying things that they may not understand.
ALLYN: Galvin's office is suing to have Robinhood banned in the state. Robinhood is also facing nearly 50 other lawsuits stemming from this moment.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Reddit users have been driving Wall Street crazy, investing in certain stocks like GameStop to force up the price.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Video game retailer GameStop is set to continue their head-spinning ascent today. Shares are now up more than 60% free market.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The video game retailer has soared about 800% in the last week.
ALLYN: And behind that surge were people tapping away at their Robinhood apps, some of them fueled by an internet joke or a way to stick it to the man. Well, it worked. It shocked Wall Street and created market turmoil. To slow down the rally, Robinhood restricted the ability to buy shares of GameStop. Critics said that hurt Robinhood users and benefited the Wall Street firms it does business with.
SINAN ARAL: They earn a significant fraction of their revenue from being a middleman.
ALLYN: Sinan Aral leads MIT's Initiative on the Digital Economy. He says when you buy a stock on Robinhood, it's sent to big institutions like Citadel Securities to actually complete the transaction, and Robinhood gets a kickback. Robinhood also sells its trading data about its users to these very same firms.
ARAL: I think those conflicts of interest are real and should be scrutinized.
ALLYN: Which is exactly what the Securities and Exchange Commission is doing. It could be an existential threat to Robinhood. But Robinhood hopes that investors see the probe as nothing more than a speed bump. In an unorthodox move, Robinhood is letting its users purchase up to a third of its stock. Will college student Frueh be opening up Robinhood to buy some Robinhood?
FRUEH: I honestly have not decided quite yet.
ALLYN: He says he loves the app, but he doesn't see it as the safest bet.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "FIREFLIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.