Hundreds of Thousands of Tiny Buyers Swarm to Insolvency Stocks

Just in the last week, 96,000 people on the Robinhood investing app opened a position in Hertz Global Holdings Inc. The number of users holding Whiting Petroleum Corp. grew roughly 10,000 in the last 24 hours.

Two things the companies have in common: They’ve filed for bankruptcy protection. And each saw their shares double to start the week.

It’s the same thing for Chesapeake Energy, as it prepares a potential filing. In the past, the court process usually wiped out equity shareholders. In this day and age, as small day traders salivate at any opportunity to get rich quick, a filing has apparently become a buy signal for many of them. There’s evidence retail investor actions have become a decisive driver of price.

“Retail has a lot to do with it and I don’t think you’ve seen institutional investors buying those kinds of stocks,” said Christopher Grisanti, chief equity strategist at MAI Capital Management. “It’s too much risk. I would call it catching a falling knife.”

Shares of stocks in or on the verge of bankruptcy soar

The 2020 stock market has been full of peculiarities that nobody saw coming. The fastest drop for the S&P 500 into a bear market, followed by the fastest 50-day rebound in nine decades. Mom and pop scrambling to the right side of the recovery trade, while the advice of Wall Street legends falls flat. A health-care crisis forcing one of the deepest recessions, and in the midst of it, equities emerging unscathed.

In a market as bizarre as this, it seems only fitting that the next step would be a growing affinity for companies that can’t pay their debts.

According to website Robintrack, which uses Robinhood’s data to show trends in positioning but isn’t affiliated with it, individual investors on the app have been flocking to bankruptcy-protected companies in droves. (The site says it downloads popularity data each hour for every stock directly from Robinhood via a public application programming interface, or API. A Robinhood spokesperson declined to comment for this story.)

Of course, interest in these stocks isn’t flowing solely from Robinhood clients. But the app is a lens into retail interest, particularly among younger investors, because unlike other popular brokerages, it’s possible to see holdings of its users in real-time. Some of the rallies in these shares may also be due to short covering.