Market Manipulation: An Overview for Retail Investors

By Brian O'Connell · September 27, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Market Manipulation: An Overview for Retail Investors

Market manipulation is exactly what it sounds like: using some sort of manipulation or even fraud to change the behavior of the stock market in an attempt to profit or generate returns. Market manipulation is not uncommon, and there are several methods or strategies that can be used to engage in it.

Given the legal perils, and the chance that investors could get caught up in various forms of market manipulation, it’s critical to have a basic understanding of what it is and what it can look like.

What Is Market Manipulation?

According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the definition of market manipulation is the “Intentional or willful conduct designed to deceive or defraud investors by controlling or artificially affecting the price of securities, or the Intentional interference with the free forces of supply and demand.” Basically, any action to impact the supply or demand for a stock and drive a stock’s price up or down by artificial means constitutes stock market manipulation.

The SEC views market manipulation as harmful, since the practice “affects the integrity of the marketplace.” According to the regulatory agency, financial market prices “should be set by the unimpeded collective judgment of buyers and sellers.” Anything else “undermines fair, honest and orderly markets.”

The SEC has warned market leaders that investors will “stay out of your market if they perceive that it is not fair and is subject to market manipulation.”

What Are Examples of Market Manipulation?

There are several methods that market manipulators use to push the prices of a security in the direction they prefer, creating investment risk for those who fall victim to their schemes.

Pump and Dump

The pump-and-dump scam is a common form of market manipulation. It occurs when a financial market participant who holds a specific investment knowingly issues false or misleading statements about the underlying company on social networking sites or other forms of media.

The goal is to “pump up” the stock with misleading information and artificially inflate the stock as buyers flock in, attracted by the false information provided by the market manipulator. The manipulator shorts the stock or waits for the optimal price point and then sells the stock before reality sets in, the information becomes known as false, and investors sell their holdings.

For example, in a pump-and-dump scheme, a market manipulator may start a rumor that a publicly-traded company is going to be bought by a larger company, which can quickly boost a company’s stock price. If enough investors buy into the rumor, more investors buy the stock, thus elevating the stock price.

Once the price hits a certain level, the market manipulators sell their shares of the stock and pocket a potentially significant profit. Those investors who don’t sell are left with a stock that could tank in price when investors realize the underlying company isn’t being bought out.

The “Wash” Method

Wash trading is a form of market manipulation, an unscrupulous investor, or group of investors acting in tandem, buy and sell the same stock repeatedly over a period of a few days or even a few hours.

By and large, an “active” trading period of a stock is considered a sign of that security’s increase in value, and the stock may swing upward as more investors notice the stock is being actively and even aggressively traded.

This scheme, also known as “painting the tape” or “matched orders” enables a few investors to team up, actively buy and sell a security to paint a picture of a stock drawing interest in the market, and sell the stock for a profit as other investors jump aboard and drive the stock’s price upward.

Tape “Spoofing”

Spoofing is also known as “layering,” and occurs when market manipulators set trading orders with brokers they have no intention of executing. In financial markets, it’s common for market orders to be public. When large orders to buy or sell a certain security are made, other investors jump aboard hoping to piggyback the unexecuted trade, thus drumming up more interest — and more investors — in the security.

Market manipulators leverage that momentum trading, and wait until the time is right to buy or sell the security as other investors’ trader orders are fulfilled. With the “spoof” finalized, the investors who wound up actually executing their trades may then see the stock move against their intended price target. Meanwhile, the “spoofer” has cancelled the trade and taken a profit on the artificial stock price, by buying or selling the security based upon intended market movement.

Marking the Close

When a market manipulator buys a security at the close of the trading day, and pays more than the bid level, or the asking price of the security, that manipulator could be “marking the close.”

As the price of a stock at day’s end is usually a reliable marker for the investment’s price performance going forward, other investors often jump in and buy the stock. The market manipulator leverages the gain and locks in a profit by quickly selling the stock once its price moves upward.

💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

How to Avoid Market Manipulation

It’s not always easy to see the “red flags” that signal an active market manipulator. However, beginner investors who are aware of common scams may be able to avoid falling victim to their scams.

Invest for the Long Term

Since market manipulators often profit from day-to-day stock movements, investors with long-term portfolios, who don’t engage in market timing, are largely insulated from the impact of market manipulators’ schemes.

Avoid Penny Stocks

Penny stocks, nano stocks, and micro-cap stocks — are often the lowest priced securities on the market and are often low-float stocks, which makes them highly volatile and more vulnerable to the price movements engineered by market manipulators.

Larger stocks, on the other hand, such as mega cap stocks, are less vulnerable to market manipulation due to their trading volume and the level of public scrutiny that they are subject to.

Conduct Due Diligence

When alerted to a potential research report, Internet chatroom or social media comment, or other sources of potentially false or misleading news, resist the urge to immediately trade on the information. That’s exactly what market manipulators expect investors to do, and they profit from impulsive market actions.

Instead, stay calm and do your research to see if there’s any validity to the news–or red flags to indicate manipulation.

Know the Scams

Awareness of schemes such as pump-and-dump or spoofing can make it easier for you to spot them in action.

The Takeaway

Market manipulation is the act of artificially moving the price of a security and profiting from that movement. Even sophisticated investors can fall victim to market manipulation, but understanding how such schemes work can help you spot and avoid them.

Knowing the basics of market manipulation, and how to sidestep it (if possible) can be another tool in an investor’s toolkit. It’s also worth noting that regulators are on the hunt for it, too. If you have further questions, it may be beneficial to speak with a financial professional.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.


What is the criminal punishment for market manipulation?

Potential punishments for market manipulation depend on the specifics of the crime, the charges, and a potential conviction, but they can involve hefty fines and many years in jail, in some circumstances.

How do big investors manipulate the stock market?

It’s possible that some bad actors spread rumors or false news about market movements in an attempt to influence sentiment, spoofing the markets, or engaging in pump and dump schemes.

How do short sellers impact stock prices?

It’s possible that short sellers can drive the value of a stock down, improving the short sellers’ positions, in the short-term.

Photo credit: iStock/HAKINMHAN

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