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Unraveling the Squeezes: A Comparative Analysis of Gamma and Short Squeezes in Investing

Updated: Feb 18

The financial trading world offers a range of complex strategies and terminologies that can often seem daunting to beginners. Two such strategies that frequently spark discussions and debates among investors are the 'Gamma Squeeze' and the 'Short Squeeze.' Understanding these concepts necessitates a foundational grasp of certain elements in options trading and short selling.

Options and the Greeks

Options are derivatives that give an investor the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined price (the strike price) before a specific date (the expiration date). Options can be call options (buying options) or put options (selling options). In options trading, the 'Greeks' measure the risks associated with an option position. These include Delta, Gamma, Theta, Vega, and Rho. Gamma, which measures the rate of change of an option's delta in response to a one-unit change in the price of the underlying asset, is critical to understanding a gamma squeeze.

Short Selling

Short selling is an investment strategy where an investor borrows shares and sells them on the open market, intending to buy them back later at a lower price to profit from the price difference. If, however, the price of the stock increases instead of falling, the investor may be forced to buy back the shares at a higher price, resulting in a loss. This scenario sets the stage for a short squeeze.

Gamma Squeeze

A gamma squeeze occurs when the price of an underlying stock rises sharply due to high options activity. This generally happens when there is a large amount of 'out of the money' call options (where the strike price is higher than the current price of the asset) for a stock. Market makers, who provide liquidity by buying and selling options and their underlying assets, play a crucial role in a gamma squeeze. When investors purchase a significant amount of call options, market makers, who typically sell these options, end up with a negative gamma position. To hedge this risk, they buy the underlying stock. As the stock price rises, nearing the options' strike price, the options' delta also increases. Market makers must then buy more shares to hedge their position, which pushes the stock price up further. This feedback loop can result in a rapid, potentially unsustainable increase in the stock's price – a 'gamma squeeze.

Short Squeeze

A short squeeze, on the other hand, is an extreme increase in the price of a stock primarily due to technical factors in the market rather than underlying fundamentals. When a heavily shorted stock starts to rise in price, short sellers may have to cover their positions (i.e., buy the stock) to prevent further losses, creating additional buying pressure and potentially causing the stock price to 'squeeze' higher.

GameStop in 2021: A Tale of Two Squeezes

The saga of GameStop (GME) stock in early 2021 presents a perfect example of both gamma and short squeezes occurring simultaneously. The retailer's shares were heavily shorted by hedge funds, expecting the stock price would decline. In contrast, a group of retail investors on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets began buying up GameStop's shares and out-of-the-money call options. This surge in demand for GME options led to a gamma squeeze as market makers bought more GME shares to hedge their negative gamma position, pushing the stock price higher. As the price rose, and the options deltas increased, market makers were compelled to buy even more shares, further propelling the price.

Simultaneously, the rising stock price caused a short squeeze as the hedge funds that had shorted GME were forced to cover their short positions to mitigate their losses. This meant buying back the stock they had borrowed and sold, adding further upward pressure to the stock price. The concurrent gamma and short squeezes catapulted GameStop's stock price to unprecedented levels, surging over 1600% in just a few days. However, it's important to note that this rapid increase was not sustainable, and the stock price eventually fell back down, leading to significant losses for those who had bought in at the peak.

Differences between Gamma and Short Squeezes

While both phenomena result in a rapid increase in a stock's price, the mechanics underlying gamma and short squeezes are fundamentally different:

  • Source of Buying Pressure: In a gamma squeeze, the buying pressure comes from market makers needing to hedge their positions due to a high volume of call options activity. In a short squeeze, the buying pressure comes from short sellers needing to cover their short positions as the price of the stock they've shorted begins to rise.

  • Triggering Event: A gamma squeeze is typically triggered by a large volume of out-of-the-money call options on a stock. A short squeeze, on the other hand, is typically triggered when a heavily shorted stock begins to rise in price.

  • Involvement of Options: Gamma squeezes are intimately tied to options trading and the dynamics of delta and gamma. Short squeezes, while they can be influenced by options activity, are primarily related to the practice of short selling.

Implications and Risks

Both gamma and short squeezes can offer considerable profit opportunities for traders who enter and exit at the right times. However, they also come with significant risks. The artificially inflated stock prices that both squeezes create are usually unsustainable and often followed by a sharp decline when the buying pressure subsides. Investors left holding the stock when the bubble bursts can suffer heavy losses. Understanding both the gamma squeeze and the short squeeze underscores the complexity and interconnectedness of financial markets. Nevertheless, it also highlights the importance of recognizing the mechanics and risks inherent in these trading phenomena. As always in the financial world, knowledge and risk management are paramount.

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