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The Trading Game

Cato Institute | Jennifer J. Schulp | May 3, 2021

The Trading Game - The Trading GamePolicymakers should exercise caution when considering whether to impose new regulations on trading app design.

Growing numbers of individual investors are now trading on their phones through app‐​based trading platforms offered by Robinhood Financial and a host of other new brokerages, such as Webull and Public. Although Robinhood first rose to prominence when it led the charge to zero‐​commission trading—an idea that became the industry standard in late 2019—the fintech startup has come under fire recently for leading the way in another innovation: the “gamification” of trading.

But what do commentators mean by gamification when they apply it to trading platforms? And how, if at all, should government officials regulate such platform design?

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Some critics warn that adding game‐​like design elements to trading platforms turns investing into an actual game that detrimentally influences investor behavior to the advantage of brokerages.

There is little consensus, however, as to which parts of these trading platforms are genuinely problematic. Critics have pointed to a host of diverse features of trading apps that gamify investing, including:

  • Using vivid colors;
  • Giving free stock for opening an account;
  • Making transferred money instantly available for trading;
  • Including social‐​media‐​style feeds;
  • Awarding bonuses and hosting contests for referrals;
  • Providing a variety of stock lists, including stocks popular on the trading platform or stocks related to the ones already owned by the investor;
  • Sending “push notifications” to app users; and
  • Using digital effects, such as the frequently referenced burst of digital confetti.

Policymakers should exercise caution when considering whether to impose new regulations on trading app design. Brokerages are in the business of getting customers to trade stocks. Drawing the right line between good marketing and abusive practices is difficult, if not impossible— especially without sufficient research on how app design influences investor behavior. Drawing that line is further complicated by the fact that, as one commentator put it, the

“main dopamine payoff of the game is probably seeing if you made money.”

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Making investing easy—or even fun—should not itself solicit a reflexive call for greater regulation. The past year has brought a surge of new investors into the markets, nearly half of whom accessed their new accounts primarily through a mobile app. Although a number of factors are likely at play, including zero‐​commission trading and the unique circumstances of the pandemic, the easy mobile trading apps have helped to attract new investors. Those new investors are younger, more diverse, and have lower incomes than those who previously had trading accounts. As SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce recognized, regulators must “be open to technological improvements that make the markets work better and encourage and equip more people to participate in them.”

Regulators should narrowly focus their efforts on limiting deceptive behavior by brokerages, rather than inhibiting modern app design that investors expect and which brokerages use to compete.

Some design elements might cross a line, but regulators should not import holdover views about how trading should look or feel to the investor—particularly as younger investors begin to make their own investment decisions. And regulators should affirmatively recognize that gamified elements can play a role in educating investors.

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