For Italian retail investors looking for their version of [hotlink]GameStop[/hotlink], the venerable Tuscan bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena looked like a good starting point.
Founded in 1472, MPS as it is known, is the world's oldest continually operated bank. But the past few years have been its toughest. Heavily in debt after making an ill-advised €9 billion acquisition of a rival bank just before the 2008 global financial crisis hit, Monte dei Paschi has absorbed hundreds of millions in state bailouts. In 2016, it was the only major lender to fail European regulators' system-wide stress test.
By this year, the bank's financial situation had stabilized, and it was still a top 10 bank in Italy in terms of capitalization and assets under control. It had jettisoned most of its nonperforming loans. Still, its share price was near an all-time low.
"At first glance, MPS seemed like it might be a good idea because its general financial situation seemed to fit" the profile of an underappreciated stock ready for liftoff, Luca Discacciati, a full-time trader with Investire.biz who runs a YouTube channel on investing, told Fortune.
"Then we saw short positions were less than 5% of the capitalization, compared to 170% for GameStop," he said. "How can anyone hope to orchestrate a 'short squeeze' on a share where the short-sellers were less than 5% of the float?"
Pennies on the euro
European investors are learning how to identify the next local GameStop-but it's somewhat slow going. Discacciati said Italian traders eventually found some lower-profile, small-cap targets, including Internet services company Tiscali; ePrice, an Italian rival to Amazon; and Digital Bros, a developer and seller of digital games. The most dramatic results came from Clabo, a penny stock which nearly tripled to €2.06 in unusually heavy trading between Jan. 27 and Feb. 4. As was the case with GameStop, day trader interest in Clabo has since slipped, and the share price has given back half its gains.
Elsewhere, a number of European stocks-"stonks" in the parlance of meme-savvy traders-briefly got caught up in last month's Reddit rally. They included Finnish telecom company [hotlink]Nokia[/hotlink], German battery maker Varta, and Polish game developer CD Projekt. It helped that some of these listings trade on exchanges on both sides of the Atlantic, or are otherwise accessible to U.S. investors. Steve Sosnick, chief strategist for Interactive Brokers, said the frenzy reminded him of "a wolf pack seeking out the weakest member of the herd."
By all indications, that wolf pack is growing in Europe.
According to French markets regulator AMF, the number of retail investor accounts in the country soared between late 2019 and the end of last year, averaging nearly 770,000 active traders per quarter for the five quarters ending in December, compared with 480,000 per quarter for the five quarters before that. In Italy, it's becoming as easy to buy stocks online as it is to order a case of Chianti. As of last October, nearly 250 firms were offering online brokerage services, a jump of 83 percent in an 18-month period. Not surprisingly, trade volume from online accounts grew by nearly 200 percent during the same period.
The retail trading zeitgeist has hit Germany, too. In Europe's biggest economy, the word "aktie" (German for "stock" or "share") has replaced "sex" as the fastest-growing search term over the last year, a period in which 1.5 million new online brokerage accounts opened.
Social media warnings
It's not quite the size of the army of retail investors found in America-households account for more than one-third (36%) of the $57 trillion U.S. equities market-but even so European regulators are eager to avoid the kind of GameStop mayhem that rocked the markets in January. Earlier this week, ESMA, the European Securities and Markets Authority (the equivalent of America's Securities and Exchange Commission), issued a warning notice to investors that social media forums can be dangerous places to look for stock-picking advice.
The ESMA warning "was promoted by what we saw in the States with GameStop," David Cliffe, a spokesman at the agency, explained. "These days, what starts in the U.S. can cross over quickly, especially with the social media being so prevalent."
There are more built-in brakes that prevent the kind of trading volatility that sent GME on a rally, as the day traders say, to the moon.
"For traders in Italy, in Europe, it's much harder to move a share price of strictly European shares than it is for investors in the U.S. and looking at U.S. exchanges," Biagio Milano, a Calabria-based investor whom an Italian publication in 2019 identified as one of Italy's top traders, told Fortune. "There are rules working against investors trying to make what happened with GameStop happen here."
Milano, who made his first big profit betting on Tiscali at a time when it briefly surpassed Italian carmaker Fiat in market capitalization in the late 1990s, said automatic systems that temporarily halt trading in securities that rise 10% in a session, and then again at 5% increments, can kill emotion-driven rallies. Furthermore, there are local laws that seek to limit public online forums from being used to overtly rally interest in specific securities.
Then there's the Italian psychology that makes it hard for investors to trust people they don't know.
'Traders' vs. 'scalpers'
"It would be difficult to have a situation like the one in the U.S. where people hold their positions as the pressure builds," Milano noted. He said he advises the people he talks with to be "traders"-the Italian term for investors who hold the shares they buy for at least a few days before selling. Those who hold shares for far briefer periods-"scalpers" in the Italian parlance-usually win or lose based on luck, he cautioned. And those who hold shares for weeks or months or even longer-the "cassettista," or "drawer operators" as the Italians call them-are missing too many opportunities.
But there are small, under-the-radar groups of mostly young Italian investors who have been newly inspired by the GameStop headlines, thinking they too can make a quick euro. They communicate via group chats on digital communication platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram to avoid rules against nonprofessionals publicly advocating buying or selling specific shares. They even have a different lingo. What Milano calls a "scalper" they call an "espresso" investor-not just because the trades are fast, but because it's a way to share in a kind of joke on the old-timers.
"My father drinks espresso," said 21-year-old Matteo, a part-time student who has worked in coffee bars and at a bus depot selling tickets. "I prefer a can of Monster or Red Bull."
Matteo, who asked that his last name not be used and who lives in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, told Fortune he is part of a self-styled group of around 60 traders communicating via WhatsApp and calling themselves "I Cavalieri" ("The Knights"). Only a few of them know each other in real life, though everyone in the group has to be recommended by another member before they can join. They are mostly unemployed, and they spend their time online, scouring stock charts looking for opportunities based mostly on some of the same kind of technical analysis the pros use: They look for undervalued stocks for established companies with trading volume on the rise, something they see as a combination that presages an upward pop in price.
Matteo said his group helped add momentum to a Feb. 1 rally in shares for Atlantia, an Italian infrastructure company embroiled in a battle between the European Commission and the Italian government over penalties for a deadly 2018 bridge collapse in Genoa.
Matteo said his total portfolio is worth a little over €12,000, "almost 50% more than at Christmas." For Italian retail traders, that's a decent-size short-term return. Another difference with his counterparts in the U.S.: His investing budget won't be fueled by stimulus "stimmy" checks. The cash-strapped Italian government hasn't been nearly as generous with fiscal relief.
Matteo said he started out with a sum he'd inherited from a relative. Another person in the group, Matteo said, sold a car he could no longer use because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Another cashed in a savings account he'd started as a child.
They may not have the funds to fuel the next great stonk rally, but their enthusiasm and numbers are growing.
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This story was originally featured on Fortune.com