Back on March 23, it seemed like stocks would never stop falling. Congress was struggling to pass stimulus, coronavirus cases were climbing, futures were pinned to their bottommost tick and $10 trillion in value had vanished.

Meanwhile in Northern Virginia, Nicole Kelleher was opening her very first brokerage account. Little did she know, the S&P 500 was about to surge 30%.

The romance novel writer and administrative aide at George Mason University spread $5,000 across Peloton Interactive Inc., Fitbit Inc., Trivago and Dropbox Inc., among others, on the Robinhood Financial app. Her husband, a restaurant executive, told her she needed some real estate. So Kelleher bought shares of MFA Financial Inc. Five weeks later, the portfolio is up almost 12%.

I just opened a robinhood account on Monday. Lol
The time to buy is NOW, people!

— Nicole E Kelleher is Querying (@NKelleherAuthor) March 25, 2020

On their own, Kelleher’s purchases don’t amount to much. But combined with similar decisions by tiny investors around the country, the buying represents a formidable force that has helped the market claw back more than half the ground lost in its fastest bear-market drop. A trio of giant retail brokerages, E*Trade Financial Corp., TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., and Charles Schwab Corp., each saw record sign-ups in the three months ending in March, with much of it coming at the depths of the swoon.

“I’m a complete noob when it comes to stocks,” the mother of high school senior twin boys said while sheltering at home. “It’s not thousands and thousands of dollars that I invested, but it’s a start. We’ll see what happens. I hate to say it, but it’s like gambling, isn’t it?”

There may be something to that. “When the casinos/sport betting closed down, some of that action went to stock markets,” speculated Nicholas Colas, cofounder of DataTrek Research, in a note Wednesday. “Google Trends data supports that idea.”

More accounts were opened and dollars invested at E*Trade in the first quarter than in any prior full-year period, according to a company statement. The brokerage added 329,000 retail accounts and over $18 billion in net retail assets.

A week after Kelleher’s moves, Tommy McDougall, a retired firefighter, opened an account with E*Trade. He bought two shares of PayPal Holdings Inc. when the stock was trading at $92. It wasn’t much, but it was his first foray into investing. McDougall, a freelance podcast host on topics ranging from fantasy football to hot yoga, spends his days recording in a home studio and taking care of his four kids. Lately he’s been keeping an eye on share prices, too.

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