Jan 29, 2021 - Economy & Business

Robinhood has a stacked policy team — and it's going to need it

A smartphone displaying the RobinHood app is seen on the keyboard of a laptop.
Photo Illustration: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The stock-trading app Robinhood has an arsenal of political power brokers it can deploy on its behalf as it faces congressional inquiries over its role in an internet-fueled market manipulation frenzy.

Why it matters: The populist, discount trading platform is going to need that firepower because its decision to suspend trading of stock in GameStop and a number of other companies on Thursday has sparked criticism and promised inquiries from both sides of the aisle.

  • Robinhood's chief legal officer Daniel Gallagher, who joined the company last year, is a former SEC commissioner.
  • In mid-2019, Robinhood hired former SEC chief of staff Lucas Moskowitz to oversee regulatory and government affairs.
  • In November, the company brought on Beth Zorc, the former senior counsel for the Senate Banking Committee.
  • Since last summer, Robinhood has hired lobbyists from four firms, including former officials at the SEC as well as the Senate Banking and House Financial Services committees.

What's happening: Robinhood blocked purchases of GameStop stock after retail traders sent its share price skyrocketing this week — dealing body blows to large Wall Street investment firms that held short positions in the video game retail chain.

  • The free trading app also suspended trades of other companies targeted by Reddit users who had banded together to try to collectively punish the prominent hedge funds.
  • At one point on Thursday, GameStop's stock was up by 2,000% since the beginning of the year.
  • Robinhood cited "recent volatility" in explaining its decision.

The move quickly drew furious reactions from lawmakers in Washington.

  • "This is unacceptable," tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). "We now need to know more about @RobinhoodApp’s decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit."
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted a thumbs up to the statement.
  • North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, said he planned to ask the panel's chair to hold a hearing. He cited the importance of "democratizing finance through technology."
  • Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) announced hearings of his own. "It's time for the SEC and Congress to make the economy work for everyone, not just Wall Street," he said in a statement.

The bottom line: Robinhood clearly recognized it might face policy challenges as a would-be disruptor in a heavily regulated industry, as reflected by its recent hiring.

  • It's not the only politically connected company wrapped up in the GameStop saga. Citadel, a hedge fund that provided an emergency cash infusion to one of the biggest losers from GameStop's stock surge, paid more than $800,000 in speaking fees in 2019 and 2020 to Janet Yellen, the new U.S. Treasury secretary.
  • Yellen "is one of the world-renowned experts on markets, on the economy," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. "It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone she was paid to give her perspective and advice before she came into office."
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