By now, though, it had been a steep learning curve, he was fairly well versed on the basics of how clearing worked: When a customer bought shares in a stock on Robinhood — say, GameStop — at a specific price, the order was first sent to Robinhood's in-house clearing brokerage, who in turn bundled the trade to a market maker for execution. The trade was then brought to a clearinghouse, who oversaw the trade all the way to the settlement.
During this time period, the trade itself needed to be 'insured' against anything that might go wrong, such as some sort of systemic collapse or a default by either party — although in reality, in regulated markets, this seemed extremely unlikely. While the customer's money was temporarily put aside, essentially in an untouchable safe, for the two days it took for the clearing agency to verify that both parties were able to provide what they had agreed upon — the brokerage house, Robinhood — had to insure the deal with a deposit; money of its own, separate from the money that the customer had provided, that could be used to guarantee the value of the trade. In financial parlance, this 'collateral' was known as VAR — or value at risk.
For a single trade of a simple asset, it would have been relatively easy to know how much the brokerage would need to deposit to insure the situation; the risk of something going wrong would be small, and the total value would be simple to calculate. If GME was trading at $400 a share and a customer wanted ten shares, there was $4000 at risk, plus or minus some nominal amount due to minute vagaries in market fluctuations during the two-day period before settlement. In such a simple situation, Robinhood might be asked to put up $4000 and change — in addition to the $4000 of the customer's buy order, which remained locked in the safe.
The deposit requirement calculation grew more complicated as layers were added onto the trading situation. A single trade had low inherent risk; multiplied to millions of trades, the risk profile began to change. The more volatile the stock — in price and/or volume — the riskier a buy or sell became.
Of course, the NSCC did not make these calculations by hand; they used sophisticated algorithms to digest the numerous inputs coming in from the trade — type of equity, volume, current volatility, where it fit into a brokerage's portfolio as a whole — and spit out a 'recommendation' of what sort of deposit would protect the trade. And this process was entirely automated; the brokerage house would continually run its trading activity through the federal clearing system and would receive its updated deposit requirements as often as every fifteen minutes while the market was open. Premarket during a trading week, that number would come in at 5:11 a.m. East Coast time, usually right as Jim, in Orlando, was finishing his morning coffee. Robinhood would then have until 10:00 a.m. to satisfy the deposit requirement for the upcoming day of trading — or risk being in default, which could lead to an immediate shutdown of all operations.
Usually, the deposit requirement was tied closely to the actual dollars being 'spent' on the trades; a near equal number of buys and sells in a brokerage house's trading profile lowered its overall risk, and though volatility was common, especially in the past half-decade, even a two-day settlement period came with an acceptable level of confidence that nobody would fail to deliver on their trades.
Ben Mezrich (The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees)