Meme stock mania continues as AMC shares double again

Shares in money-losing movie theatre chain AMC continued their dizzying rise on Wednesday, doubling in value as retail traders continue to pile into the company on the theory that they've caught Wall Street investors in a squeeze.

AMC is now worth more than previous short squeeze poster child GameStop

Moviegoers at an AMC theatre in New York are shown in this photo from March. While attendance is still 90 per cent below normal levels, investors have pumped up the price of AMC shares by more than 1,000 per cent this year. (Amir Hamja/Bloomberg)

Shares in money-losing movie theatre chain AMC continued their dizzying rise on Wednesday, doubling in value as retail traders continue to pile into the company on the theory that they've caught Wall Street investors in a squeeze.

AMC shares briefly topped $70 a share at one point on Wednesday, more than twice the $32 level they closed at the day before. When markets closed, AMC shares were worth $62.55 apiece, up about 95 per cent on the day.

That stock price is about six times what the company was worth barely a month ago. The company has become the latest target in a battle between retail traders and Wall Street investors known as short sellers, who make money when stocks go down.

Retail investors on social media networks like Reddit, Discord and others have been buying into the theatre chain in large numbers in recent weeks, buying up as many shares as they can get, despite the company's underlying business still being negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Business isn't booming

AMC has 585 movie theatres across the U.S. and another 97 in Canada and around the world. The vast majority of the chain's locations are either closed or at reduced capacity, and last month AMC revealed it lost $567 million US in the first three months of the current fiscal year.

The number of paying customers declined by 88 per cent compared to the same period pre-pandemic. But that hasn't stopped retail investors from pouring money into the chain on the belief that better times are ahead. The stock is up by more than 1,100 per cent this year.

Many Wall Street short sellers have been betting that the company's share price would decline, but when momentum changes direction, those shorts are forced to buy into a rising stock price, creating even more buying pressure to push the price up in a phenomenon known as a short squeeze.

WATCH | This short video explains how short selling works:

How short selling works

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An animated explanation of how people make money from stocks losing value

One of the most memorable short squeezes ever happened earlier this year in video game retailer GameStop, and the same ingredients are in place now for AMC.

Although the shares fell off a little in the afternoon, at $70 a share, AMC was valued at more than $25 billion US, which is more than GameStop was worth at the height of its mania. More than 3 million individual people own AMC shares at the moment, and their combined stake adds up to more than 80 per cent of the company — an extraordinarily high ratio for any publicly traded company. At rival movie chain Cinemark, for example, less than 10 per cent of the company is owned by retail investors, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Geetha Ranganathan noted.

Roughly 20 per cent of AMC's shares, or about 95 million, are being shorted, she calculates. And so far this year, short sellers have lost more than $2 billion betting against the company, according to short selling research firm S3 Partners.

The run-up in the company's shares "is largely motivated by individual investors' desire to revamp Wall Street by squeezing short sellers and hedge funds," she says, because fundamental problems with the company's core business model remain.

"Shut cinemas, capacity limits and movie delays mean receipts may not reach pre-pandemic levels in the foreseeable future," she said, "and the long-term box-office outlook remains weak, as studios shrink the theatrical window and send films directly to their streaming platforms."

Chain to offer free popcorn for stock owners

Regardless, AMC management is leaning into its newfound popularity with retail investors, raising $230 million in cash this week by selling new shares which were eagerly gobbled up by the market.

And the company launched what sounds like a loyalty program for its investors on Wednesday, unveiling plans to offer investors perks when they attend their theatres — including a free large popcorn when they attend their first in-person movie this summer.

"Even if our shareholders now number in the millions ... these people are the owners of AMC, and I work for them," CEO Adam Aron said in a news release announcing the initiative.

Some who watch the company say trading in AMC's shares may not make any sense, but that doesn't mean it can't continue to defy expectations.

"AMC is trading as if this summer was going to have new Star Wars, Avengers, and Batman movies," said Edward Moya, a strategist with foreign exchange firm Oanda. "The retail force behind this movement is still strong, so it is anyone's guess how much larger this bubble can grow."