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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Professional investors have largely abandoned the stock market amid the coronavirus pandemic, but sports bettors and bored millennials have jumped into the retail stock trading market with both feet.

Why it matters: They may be a driving force pushing U.S. stocks to their recent highs — and potentially driving them further.

What's happening: Online brokerages have seen a record number of new accounts opened this year, and the big four — E-Trade, TD Ameritrade, Charles Schwab and Interactive Brokers — executed as many trades in March and April as in the whole first half of last year, per public disclosures.

  • Equity strategists at Deutsche Bank note there is "plenty of evidence" that new retail investors have been buying since the stock market began to crash and that professional money managers are "now chasing" them.

Between the lines: Robinhood, whose easy-to-use app makes the transition between sports betting and trading seamless, boasts a similar customer base to most sportsbooks, notes Marc Rubinstein in his newsletter, Net Interest.

  • "43% of North American men aged 25-34 who watch sports also bet on sports at least once per week, and that's the same group that has flocked to Robinhood," Rubinstein writes.
  • "On the basis that their customers love sports betting, there's something meta about DraftKings itself having worked its way into more Robinhood portfolios than practically any other stock over the past month."

The big picture: Sports betting and stock trading aren't all that different. In fact, most online betting platforms are modeled on stock exchanges, and Nasdaq itself provides sportsbooks with technology that was born in the financial markets.

  • The comparisons between the two have only increased with the rise of legal sports betting and the surge in mobile stock trading, two activities that cater to the thrill of short-term gains and losses.
  • "For a gambler, investing has a ton of similarities," said Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, who has begun streaming his day-trading sessions for an audience that normally consumes sports betting content.
  • Barstool also changed its daily gambling radio show from "Picks Central" to "Stocks Central" — further evidence of the crossover between the two.

Meanwhile, most professional investors were sitting on the sidelines.

  • Nearly $5 trillion now sits in money market funds, which are effectively savings accounts, the largest total on record and about $1 trillion more than the record high during the global financial crisis.
  • In its note to clients, Deutsche strategists add that for "large swathes of the equity market in the U.S. as well as globally ... positioning is still extremely low."

Professionals have also been buying bonds rather than stocks as U.S. equity indexes raced back from their lows over the last two months.

  • Data from the Investment Company Institute shows equity funds saw six straight weeks of outflows from the week ending April 22 to the week ending May 27, totaling $78.2 billion. Bond funds, on the other hand, have had seven straight weeks of inflows through May 27, totaling $91.7 billion.
  • Professional traders have finally started dipping their toes back into the stock market in June, according to Bank of America's data, which showed $6.2 billion into stocks last week, compared with $32.5 billion into bonds.
  • BofA's Bull & Bear indicator rose from its lowest possible level — 0.0 — where it had been since March 25 to move to 0.4 last week, still indicating a paucity of institutional investors buying stocks.

The bottom line: Day trading has replaced sports betting as a form of entertainment for many Americans during the shutdown, and this phenomenon could partly explain the current disconnect between the economy (down) and the stock market (up).

Go deeper: Sports betting stocks are surging despite the lack of live games

Go deeper

Updated Jan 28, 2021 - Economy & Business

Senate panel to hold hearing after high-flying Reddit stocks cause Wall Street chaos

Major trading platforms including Robinhood, TD Ameritrade and Interactive Brokers are restricting — or cutting off entirely — trading on high-flying stocks like GameStop and AMC Entertainment.

The latest: Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) announced Thursday that he plans to hold a hearing on "the current state of the stock market" in response to this week's volatility.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Jan 29, 2021 - Economy & Business

SEC says it will "closely review" restrictions on Reddit-fueled stocks

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday warned Robinhood and other brokerages that it will "closely review" actions they took on Thursday that prevented investors from buying stock in GameStop and other popular Reddit-fueled stocks.

Why it matters: The move from Robinhood generated anger across the political spectrum and among small investors who wanted to participate in one of the most exciting stock-market trades of the moment.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Jan 28, 2021 - Economy & Business

How GameStop exposed the market

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Retail traders have found a cheat code for the stock market, and barring some major action from regulatory authorities or a massive turn in their favored companies, they're going to keep using it to score "tendies" and turn Wall Street on its head.

What's happening: The share prices of companies like GameStop are rocketing higher, based largely on the social media organizing of a 3-million strong group of Redditors who are eagerly piling into companies that big hedge funds are short selling, or betting will fall in price.