What’s a Meme Stock?
Meme stocks tend to experience huge prices swings, often driven by social-media chatter.
A meme is a way for social-media users to quickly communicate an idea, style, trend, or behavior, usually through a combination of an image and a catchphrase.
Meme stocks are stocks that see dramatic increases in price, mostly fueled by social-media discussions on Reddit and Twitter. Trading in these stocks is usually driven by short-term buyers and sellers. And because meme stocks rarely have business fundamentals to support huge jumps in price, they tend to experience huge price swings.
The first prominent example of a meme stock in 2021 was struggling video game retailer GameStop GME. The stock traded $19 per share at the start of the year, but by Jan. 28, it hit an all-time high of $483 per share.
Many meme stocks experience huge rallies that are fueled by what is called a “short squeeze” on Wall Street. A short squeeze is the result of frantic buying by traders who have bet that a stock is overpriced and will fall in price. They make these bets by essentially selling shares of stock that they don’t own in hopes of buying it at a lower price. (This is known as going “short” a stock.) But when a stock starts to move higher, the shorts can suffer huge losses, and investors are forced to buy at higher and higher prices to cover their short positions. This leads to a rally that can take a meme stock far above what investors may view as an appropriate value based on underlying fundamentals.
But once the upward momentum runs out and the stock starts to turn down, the reverse can happen, and the stock price can plummet as those who bought on the way up scramble to unload the now overpriced shares.
As if that wasn’t enough, price swings on meme stocks can be further magnified by traders who use leverage—in other words, borrowed money, such as margin accounts—which also serves to magnify the traders’ losses and gains. Stocks with heavy trading in options can also be vulnerable to high levels of price volatility.
But before choosing to invest in individual stocks—whether it’s a meme stock or even a high-quality stock—it’s important to determine your own financial goals and how individual stocks may or may not fit into your investment strategy. Here are some basic questions to ask yourself:
First, you should develop an asset allocation based on your financial goals. Your asset allocation is your portfolio’s blend of stocks, bonds, and cash. Most research suggests that setting up the right asset mix is more important than choosing great investments. Determining your asset allocation is easier than ever before, thanks to a variety of online calculators and tools. Here’s our guide to asset allocation.
As part of this, investors should consider two variables: risk capacity and risk tolerance.
Risk capacity is how much risk you can take without needing to change your plan. Young people who are saving for retirement have high risk capacities. People who are about to retire have lower ones, though they still need to take some risk to ensure that their money will last. Risk tolerance relates to how you feel when the market is volatile. It tends to be less important than risk capacity. But if your risk tolerance is so low that there’s a chance that you’ll throw out your plan when the going gets tough, risk tolerance is important, too.
At Morningstar, we take an owner-oriented approach to stock investing. When you buy a stock, think of yourself as a partial owner of the company. It’s important to understand a company’s fundamentals before purchasing its shares. We consider three basics when we think of buying shares:
We have specific ratings to help you determine each of these basics. Here’s a rundown.
Competitive Advantage: We capture our opinion of a company’s competitive advantages in the Morningstar Economic Moat Rating. Some companies have specific attributes that can effectively fend off competitors and earn high returns on capital for years to come. A company whose competitive advantages we expect to last more than 20 years has a wide moat, one that can fend off rivals for 10 years has a narrow moat, while a firm with either no advantage or one that we think will quickly dissipate has no moat.
Worth: Use our fair value estimates for our take on what we think a company’s shares are worth. We calculate fair value estimates by determining the present value of how much cash flow we think a company will generate in the future. The Morningstar Uncertainty Rating—depicted as Low, Medium, High, Very High, or Extreme—depicts the level of uncertainty around our fair value estimate, based on things like a company’s sales predictability, operating and financial leverage, and exposure to contingent events.
Safety: The Morningstar Rating for stocks indicates whether a stock is undervalued (4 or 5 stars), fairly valued (3 stars), or overvalued (1 and 2 stars) based on where a stock’s market price is relative to our fair value estimate, adjusted for uncertainty.
For these measures, Morningstar’s coverage of stocks can be divided in two: companies covered by Morningstar analysts and companies without analyst coverage that instead have a Morningstar Quantitative Rating. This rating is noted with a superscript Q on our stock pages. Meme stocks have so far fallen into the latter category.
This quantitative rating calculation is generated by a statistical model and updated daily. It is based on 11 data points in order to arrive at a fair value estimate based on our analyst-driven estimates. One key variable in the quantitative rating calculation is the stock’s previous day closing price. Because of this emphasis on the prior day’s closing price, the significant intraday price swings that meme stocks often experience can cause the appearance of short-term distortions in the quantitative rating. But we believe that even for the most volatile stocks, the quantitative rating provides directional information for investors on the relative value of the stocks.
An ideal “buy” would be a company that has a significant competitive advantage and is also undervalued—meaning a 5-star stock with a wide moat. You can find many of these opportunities in the Our Picks collection.
In general, meme stocks are not what Morningstar considers to be a long-term investment. Instead, meme stocks should be considered from the viewpoint of a short-term trader willing to speculate on a stock’s momentum up or down and—importantly—able to weather a significant loss.
Rocket ships will eventually burn out of fuel, and you certainly don’t want to be the last one buying.
Data journalist Jakir Hossain contributed to this article.
Ruth Saldanha does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.