September 3, 2021

“The Trouble With Tribbles”: The Potential Downside of the Rise of Retail

If you’re old enough to remember the original version of “Stark Trek,” you probably recall an episode called “The Trouble with Tribbles.”  The plot involved a somewhat sketchy interstellar trader who arrived selling purring little fluff-balls known as “tribbles.”  These creatures were adorable and soothing, and everybody on the crew loved them.  The only problem was that they bred uncontrollably and their sheer numbers quickly threatened to overwhelm the entire starship.

It seems to me that plot of this 50+ year old Star Trek episode – which my wife says I’m a dork for using in this blog – actually isn’t a bad analogy for the potential consequences of the retail investor boom over the past year.  Like tribbles, retail investors usually are considered pretty cuddly by company management, but when the size of the retail base explodes, all sorts of complications can arise. This recent  WSJ article detailing the travails of companies that found themselves on the receiving end of Robinhood’s “free stock” promotion is a good example of some of those complications. Here’s an excerpt with a hair-raising tale from a small cap issuer about just how much Robinhood’s promo cost it:

One company pushing back is Florida-based drugmaker Catalyst Pharmaceuticals Inc., which says Robinhood’s program cost it more than $200,000 last year and could be even more expensive this year. “Catalyst has become aware that Robinhood has been giving away shares of Catalyst’s common stock at no charge as part of its promotional program,” Catalyst Chief Executive Patrick McEnany wrote in a June comment letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Catalyst believes that there are likely numerous companies facing this same issue, and that the costs of distributing materials to small stockholders under these circumstances is onerous and unreasonable.”

To put this into perspective, Catalyst only had about $120 million in revenues last year, so you can see why they’d gag on Robinhood sticking them with an additional $200,000 in mailing costs. Not to pat ourselves on the back, but Liz flagged the issue of potentially alarming rises in proxy distribution costs on our “Proxy Season Blog” more than a year ago. She also recently blogged about the NYSE’s rule change that will no long require issuers to bear fees associated with shareholders who only hold shares due to broker promos.

It appears that this issue may at least be on its way to being managed, but I think there’s reason to believe that the unprecedented influx of retail investors over the past year means that the problem of higher proxy distribution costs isn’t the only “trouble with tribbles” that public companies are going to have to deal with in the near future. What do I mean by that? Well, a couple of concerns come to mind. . .

John Jenkins