Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

August 16, 2014

by John Mauldin

of Mauldin Economics

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
– Albert Einstein

Genius is a rising stock market.
– John Kenneth Galbraith

Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when circumstances are set in extremes.
– Prince Metternich

I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams they fade and die
Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air

– Burr and Campbell

You can almost feel it in the air. The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It’s exhilarating, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over. There’s nothing like a rising market to lift our moods. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride it high and then bail out before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

My friend Grant Williams thinks the biggest bubble around is in complacency. I agree that is a large one, but I think even larger bubbles, still building, are those of government debt and government promises. When these latter two burst, and probably simultaneously, that will mark the true bottom for this cycle now pushing 90 years old.

So, this week we’ll think about bubbles. Specifically, we’ll have a look at part of the chapter on bubbles from Code Red, my latest book, coauthored with Jonathan Tepper, which we launched late last year. I was putting this chapter together about this time last year while in Montana, and so in a lazy August it is good to remind ourselves of the problems that will face us when everyone returns to their desks in a few weeks. And note, this is not the whole chapter, but at the end of the letter is a link to the entire chapter, should you desire more.

As I wrote earlier this week, I am NOT calling a top, but I am pointing out that our risk antennae should be up. You should have a well-designed risk program for your investments. I understand you have to be in the markets to get those gains, and I encourage that, but you have to have a discipline in place for cutting your losses and getting back in after a market drop.

There is enough data out there to suggest that the market is toppy and the upside is not evenly balanced. Take a look at these four charts. I offer these updated charts and note that some charts in the letter below are from last year, but the levels have only increased. The direction is the same. What they show is that by many metrics the market is at levels that are highly risky; but as 2000 proved, high-risk markets can go higher. The graphs speak for themselves. Let’s look at the Q-ratio, corporate equities to GDP (the Buffett Indicator), the Shiller CAPE, and margin debt.

We make the case in Code Red that central banks are inflating bubbles everywhere, and that even though bubbles are unpredictable almost by definition, there are ways to benefit from them. So, without further ado, let’s look at what co-author Jonathan Tepper and I have to say about bubbles in Chapter 9.

Easy Money Will Lead to Bubbles and How to Profit from Them

Every year, the Darwin Awards are given out to honor fools who kill themselves accidentally and remove themselves from the human gene pool. The 2009 Award went to two bank robbers. The robbers figured they would use dynamite to get into a bank. They packed large quantities of dynamite by the ATM machine at a bank in Dinant, Belgium. Unhappy with merely putting dynamite in the ATM, they pumped lots of gas through the letterbox to make the explosion bigger. And then they detonated the explosives. Unfortunately for them, they were standing right next to the bank. The entire bank was blown to pieces. When police arrived, they found one robber with severe injuries. They took him to the hospital, but he died quickly. After they searched through the rubble, they found his accomplice. It reminds you a bit of the immortal line from the film The Italian Job where robbers led by Sir Michael Caine, after totally demolishing a van in a spectacular explosion, shouted at th em, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

Central banks are trying to make stock prices and house prices go up, but much like the winners of the 2009 Darwin Awards, they will likely get a lot more bang for their buck than they bargained for. All Code Red tools are intended to generate spillovers to other financial markets. For example, quantitative easing (QE) and large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) are meant to boost stock prices and weaken the dollar, lower bonds yields, and chase investors into higher-risk assets. Central bankers hope they can find the right amount of dynamite to blow open the bank doors, but it is highly unlikely that they’ll be able to find just the right amount of money printing, interest rate manipulation, and currency debasement to not damage anything but the doors. We’ll likely see more booms and busts in all sorts of markets because of the Code Red policies of central banks, just as we have in the past. They don’t seem to learn the right lessons.

Targeting stock prices is par for the course in a Code Red world. Officially, the Fed receives its marching orders from Congress and has a dual mandate: stable prices and high employment. But in the past few years, by embarking on Code Red policies, Bernanke and his colleagues have unilaterally added a third mandate: higher stock prices. The chairman himself pointed out that stock markets had risen strongly since he signaled the Fed would likely do more QE during a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2010. “I do think that our policies have contributed to a stronger stock market, just as they did in March of 2009, when we did the last iteration [of QE]. The S&P 500 is up about 20 percent plus and the Russell 2000 is up 30 percent plus.” It is not hard to see why stock markets rally when investors believe the most powerful central banker in the world wants to print money and see stock markets go up.

Investors are thrilled. As Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at Pacific Investment Management Company, said, “Central banks are our best friends not because they like markets, but because they can only get to their macro objectives by going through the markets.”

Properly reflected on, this is staggering in its implications. A supposedly neutral central bank has decided that it can engineer a recovery by inflating asset prices. The objective is to create a “wealth effect” that will make those who invest in stocks feel wealthier and then decide to spend money and invest in new projects. This will eventually be felt throughout the economy. This “trickle-down” monetary policy has been successful in creating wealth for those who were already rich (and for the banks and investment management firms who service them) but has been spectacularly a failure in creating good jobs and a high-growth economy. The latest quarter as we write this letter will be in the 1 percent gross domestic product (GDP) range.

And to listen to the speeches from the majority of members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, their prescription is more of the same. Indeed, when Bernanke merely hinted this summer that QE might end at some point, something that everyone already knows, the market swooned and a half-a-dozen of his fellow committee members felt compelled to issue statements and speeches the next week, saying, “Not really, guys, we really are going to keep it up for a bit longer.”

We’ve seen this movie before. In the book When Money Dies, Adam Fergusson quotes from the diary of Anna Eisenmenger, an Austrian widow. In early 1920 Eisenmenger wrote, “Speculation on the stock exchange has spread to all ranks of the population and shares rise like air balloons to limitless heights. … My banker congratulates me on every new rise, but he does not dispel the secret uneasiness which my growing wealth arouses in me … it already amounts to millions.” Much like after the initial Nixon Shock in the 1970s, stock prices rise rapidly when a currency weakens and money supply grows. Not surprisingly, the 1970s led to bubbles in commodities.

This chapter will show how to spot bubbles when they form, how to profit from them, and how to avoid the dire consequences when they burst.

Excess Liquidity Creating Bubbles

As we write Code Red, stock prices are roaring ahead. In fact, many asset classes are looking like bubbles from our cheap seats. (While we expect a correction at some point, when the Fed or the Bank of Japan creates money, it has to go somewhere.)

One area that stands out as particularly bubbly is the corporate bond market. Investors are barely being compensated for the risks they’re taking. In 2007, a three-month certificate of deposit yielded more than junk bonds do today. Average yields on investment-grade debt worldwide dropped to a record low 2.45 percent as we write this from 3.4 percent a year ago, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Corporate Index. Veteran investors in high-yield bonds and bank debt see a bubble forming. Wilbur L. Ross Jr., chairman and CEO of WL Ross & Co. has pointed to a “ticking time bomb” in the debt markets. Ross noted that one third of first-time issuers had CCC or lower credit ratings and in the past year more than 60 percent of the high-yield bonds were refinancings. None of the capital was to be used for expansion or working capital, just refinancing balance sheets. Some people think it is good there is no new leveraging, but it is much worse. This means that many companies had no cash on hand to pay off old debt and had to refinance.

One day, all the debt will come due, and it will end with a bang. “We are building a bigger time bomb” with $500 billion a year in debt coming due between 2018 and 2020, at a point in time when the bonds might not be able to be refinanced as easily as they are today, Mr. Ross said. Government bonds are not even safe because if they revert to the average yield seen between 2000 and 2010, ten year treasuries would be down 23 percent. “If there is so much downside risk in normal treasuries,” riskier high yield is even more mispriced, Mr. Ross said. “We may look back and say the real bubble is debt.”

Another bubble that is forming and will pop is agricultural land in many places in the United States (although agriculture in other countries can be found at compelling values). The bubble really started going once the Fed started its Code Red policies. Land prices in the heart of the Corn Belt have increased at a double-digit rate in six of the past seven years. According to Federal Reserve studies, farmland prices were up 15 percent last year in the most productive part of the Corn Belt, and 26 percent in the western Corn Belt and high plains. Iowa land selling for $2,275 per acre a decade ago is now at $8,700 per acre. As you can see from Figure 9.2, the increase in farmland prices beats almost anything the United States saw during the housing bubble. A lot of banks in the Midwest will have problem with their lending.

Why are we seeing so many bubbles right now? One reason is that the economy is weak and inflation is low. The growth in the money supply doesn’t go to driving up prices for goods like toothpaste, haircuts, or cars. It goes to drive up prices of real estate, bonds, and stocks.

Excess liquidity is money created beyond what the real economy needs. In technical terms, Marshallian K is the difference between growth in the money supply and nominal GDP. The measure is the surplus of money that is not absorbed by the real economy. The term is named after the great English economist Alfred Marshall. When the money supply is growing faster than nominal GDP, then excess liquidity tends to flow to financial assets. However, if the money supply is growing more slowly than nominal GDP, then the real economy absorbs more available liquidity. That’s one reason why stocks go up

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