Gen Z looks to amateur investing to soothe economic anxiety

For lots of young people, the economy seems more uncertain than ever. Some have turned to the stock market with fee-free, easy-to-use investment applications and are learning firsthand about reward – and risk. 

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Vlad Tenev, co-founder and co-CEO of investing app Robinhood, speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt event in New York, May 10, 2016. Robinhood has said that it is working to improve its educational materials to protect amateur customers from large losses.

Juggling homework, friends and his personal YouTube channel, 12-year-old Kwon Joon is often too busy to check on his investments – not that the South Korean schoolboy is too concerned.

With impressive returns of 42% since he began dabbling in the stock market last year, Joon believes online trading can safeguard his financial future, in a world made increasingly insecure by the economic fallout from COVID-19.

“To be honest, I sometimes forget to check my stock account because of my school work or when I’m playing with my friends,” said Joon, who has made 14 million won ($12,364) in profits since he invested 25 million won ($22,099) in seed money last April.

“I’m going to take the shares with me until I become an adult. I think this is the benefit of investing in stocks as a young person because you can invest in it for the long term,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from southern Jeju Island.

From South Korea to the United States, a growing number of teens and young adults born after 1996 – dubbed Generation Z – are turning to online investment platforms that offer the chance to make a living with a swipe, but often pose unforeseen risks.

Gen Z – some 2.5 billion people – make up 32% of the global population, followed by Millennials aged 25 to 40 at 22%, according to Bank of America, which predicts Gen Z’s entry into the workforce will disrupt economies and markets.

Making money

Gen Z have seen a promising global jobs market shredded by the pandemic, with soaring unemployment, particularly among young restaurant and travel workers. Bank of America says the pandemic will cost students $10 trillion in lifetime earnings.

Frustrated by lockdowns and dwindling work opportunities, many people in Gen Z are trying their luck on the stock market using fee-free, simple-to-use brokerage apps like Robinhood that offer amateurs unprecedented access to trade.

“Once the pandemic hit and everything went digital, it really gave way for people to focus on investing because it was one of the few activities you could do online,” said Eshita Nandini, who uses Robinhood.

“A lot of people talk about what they’re investing in through group chats, which I have. But there’s these pockets of communities online that you can go to and really learn about what people are doing,” said the San Francisco data analyst.

In the U.S., Apex Clearing, which facilitates trades for brokerage companies, said it opened nearly 6 million accounts in 2020 – up 137% on 2019 – and about 1 million of those belonged to Gen Z investors.

Similarly in South Korea, rookies like Joon have led a rise in retail, or individual, trade amid the pandemic, now making up two-thirds of the trade value of shares up from half in 2019.

“There is no reason why you can’t make money just because you’re a teenager. It’s a great time to practice making money on your own,” said Joon, adding that he can now comfortably pursue an entertainment career instead of vying for a university spot.

Risky business

But the ease with which shares can be bought and sold online has exposed some novice traders to risks they cannot handle.

U.S. student Alex Kearns took his own life after Robinhood notified him of what he thought was a $730,000 loss on a trade, and he was unable to communicate with anyone at the company, according to a lawsuit filed by his family last month.

In reality, the loss was covered by other options in Mr. Kearns’ account, according to the lawsuit, which said Robinhood has an obligation to know its customers and ensure their trading strategies are appropriate, not prey on inexperienced investors.

Robinhood said it was improving its educational materials and more live support staff, among other changes.

“I hope to see more moderation from platforms, even if it’s a warning message,” said Meagan Loyst, a 23-year-old venture capitalist in New York who founded a network called Gen Z VCs.

“There are a lot of young people ... who are not sophisticated investors and everyone should know the risks.”

The Robinhood app – along with the Wallstreetbets Reddit page, popular with Gen Z investors – also helped fuel a 1,600% surge in shares of video game retailer GameStop Corp in January.

When Robinhood restricted trading in the 13 most volatile stocks, a move it said was done to meet capital requirements, customers reacted with fury.

During the Gamestop frenzy, 67% of people who traded in the shares using the Wealthsimple app lost money, 29% of whom were Gen Zs, said the Canadian trading platform.

Housebound Gen Zs eager to make a quick buck through trading apps should be wary of self-professed investment gurus on platforms like YouTube dishing out bite-sized advice, said Tik Tok’s @venturecapitalguy, Jonathan Chang.

“That’s the sort of content you should stay away from,” said 22-year-old Mr. Chang, a U.S. venture capital associate.

“They tell people who have no knowledge of the industry, ‘Hey invest in this, you’ll be rich.’ But in reality it’s probably not going to go up.”

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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