Prisons Become Latest Meme-Stock Fad With Geo Jumping 38%

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(Bloomberg) -- The meme-stock craze has turned rental cars, video games and movie theaters into day traders’ playthings over the past year. The fad took a darker turn Wednesday as the Reddit horde brought prisons into the mix.

Retail traders drove shares of Geo Group Inc. up as much as 73%, even as the company struggles for survival in a world turning on private-prison operators. As of the close, Geo surged a record 38%.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration plans to sever ties with the industry, and lenders including Bank of America Corp. have pledged to no longer finance prisons. When S&P Global Ratings downgraded its assessment of Geo’s creditworthiness in March, it noted that prison operators face “ongoing social and governance risks.” A proposed Alabama bond sale for a private-prison firm was derailed earlier this year by opposition from activist groups.

The action in Geo shares seemed to originate on the same message boards driving frenzied gains in GameStop Corp. and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. After all, for retail traders on Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum and elsewhere on social media, the fundamental challenges facing Geo are beside the point. And there is irony in the fact that the freedom of actual humans is at stake with Geo, which conflicts with the loud populist cries frequently coming from Redditors.

Short selling of Geo’s stock amounts to about 37% of the company’s float, or shares publicly available for trading, according to data from S3 Partners. That puts Geo in the crosshairs of retail speculators who have systematically bid up heavily shorted companies.

These investors rally buyers in order to send the detractors hurrying to cover their pessimistic bets on a stock. The cycle quickly snowballs.

The strategy requires at least a thin bull case for investing. One Reddit user Wednesday made the case that even companies like Geo that are scorned widely by Wall Street can find funding somewhere.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Agitated_Curve2655 wrote of the challenges Geo faces. “When there is money to be made, someone will loan to GEO, overseas banks, some private equity firm.”

Regarding the matter of the company losing federal business comprising about a quarter of its revenue, Agitated_Curve2655 was similarly sanguine.

“The order says not to renew existing contracts,” the user wrote. “OK Biden... Lets make a new one then,” the post read. “Problem solved.”

Action in credit markets seems to hew more closely to reality, which involves a debt load that Geo is struggling to manage. The company announced in May it hired legal and financial advisers to help it address upcoming maturities it can’t repay. If the process leads to a debt restructuring, Geo’s equity value would most likely be wiped out.

But over in stocks land, Twitter user @SoJerZ_ is apparently having a good day.

“Made $33,000 in my sleep thanks to $GEO.”

(Updates stock performance in headline)

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