We have lived through many investment bubbles in our history, and unfortunately, most investors sleep through the early wealth-creating inflation stages. Typically, the average investor wakes up later to a hot idea once every man, woman, and child have identified the clear trend…right as the bubble is about burst. Sadly, the masses do a great job of identifying financial bubbles at the end of a cycle, but have a tougher time realizing the catastrophic consequences of exiting a tired winner. Or as strategist Jim Stack states, “Bubbles, for the most part, are invisible to those trapped inside the bubble.” The challenge of recognizing bubbles explains why they are more easily classified as bubbles after a colossal collapse occurs. For those speculators chasing a precise exit point on a bubblicious investment, they may be better served by waiting for the prick of the bubble, then take a decade long nap before revisiting the fallen angel investment idea.
Even for the minority of pundits and investors who are able to accurately identify these financial bubbles in advance, a much smaller number of these professionals are actually able to pinpoint when the bubble will burst. Take for example Alan Greenspan, the ex-Federal Reserve Chairman from 1987 to 2006. He managed to correctly identify the technology bubble in late-1996 when he delivered his infamous “irrational exuberance” speech, which questioned the high valuation of the frothy, tech-driven stock market. The only problem with Greenspan’s speech was his timing was massively off. Stated differently, Greenspan was three years premature in calling out the pricking of the bubble, as the NASDAQ index subsequently proceeded to more than triple from early 1997 to early 2000 (the index exploded from about 1,300 to over 5,000).
One of the reasons bubbles are so difficult to time during their later stages is because the deflation period occurs so quickly. As renowned value investor Howard Marks fittingly notes, “The air always goes out a lot faster than it went in.”
Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere
Financial bubbles do not occur every day, but thanks to the psychological forces of investor greed and fear, bubbles do occur more often than one might think. As a matter of fact, famed investor Jeremy Grantham claims to have identified 28 bubbles in various global markets since 1920. Definitions vary, but Webster’s Dictionary defines a financial bubble as the following:
A state of booming economic activity (as in a stock market) that often ends in a sudden collapse.
Although there is no numerical definition of what defines a bubble or collapse, the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, which was fueled by a housing and real estate bubble, is the freshest example in most people minds. However, bubbles go back much further in time – here are a few memorable ones:
Dutch Tulip-Mania: Fear and greed have been ubiquitous since the dawn of mankind, and those emotions even translate over to the buying and selling of tulips. Believe it or not, some 400 years ago in the 1630s, individual Dutch tulip bulbs were selling for the same prices as homes ($61,700 on an inflation-adjusted basis). This bubble ended like all bubbles, as you can see from the chart below.
British Railroad Mania: In the mid-1840s, hundreds of companies applied to build railways in Britain. Like all bubbles, speculators entered the arena, and the majority of companies went under or got gobbled up by larger railway companies.
Roaring 20s: Here in the U.S., the Roaring 1920s eventually led to the great Wall Street Crash of 1929, which finally led to a nearly -90% plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial stock index over a relatively short timeframe. Leverage and speculation were contributors to this bust, which resulted in the Great Depression.
Nifty Fifty: The so-called Nifty Fifty stocks were a concentrated set of glamor stocks or “Blue Chips” that investors and traders piled into. The group of stocks included household names like Avon (AVP), McDonald’s (MCD), Polaroid, Xerox (XRX), IBM and Disney (DIS). At the time, the Nifty Fifty were considered “one-decision” stocks that investors could buy and hold forever. Regrettably, numerous of these hefty priced stocks (many above a 50 P/E) came crashing down about 90% during the 1973-74 period.
Japan’s Nikkei: The Japanese Nikkei 225 index traded at an eye popping Price-Earnings (P/E) ratio of about 60x right before the eventual collapse. The value of the Nikkei index increased over 450% in the eight years leading up to the peak in 1989 (from 6,850 in October 1982 to a peak of 38,957 in December 1989).
The Tech Bubble: We all know how the technology bubble of the late 1990s ended, and it wasn’t pretty. PE ratios above 100 for tech stocks was the norm (see table below), as compared to an overall PE of the S&P 500 index today of about 14x.
The Next Bubble
What is/are the next investment bubble(s)? Nobody knows for sure, but readers of Investing Caffeine know that long-term bonds are one fertile area. Given the generational low in yields and rates, and the 35-year bull run in bond prices, it can be difficult to justify heavy allocations of inflation losing bonds for long time-horizon investors. Commercial real estate and Silicon Valley unicorns could be other potential over-heated areas. However, as we discussed earlier, identifying and timing bubble bursts is extremely challenging. Nevertheless, the great thing about long-term investing is that probabilities and valuations ultimately do matter, and therefore a diversified portfolio skewed away from extreme valuations and speculative sectors will pay handsome dividends over the long-run.
Many traders continue to daydream as they chase performance through speculative investment bubbles, looking to squeeze the last ounce of an easily identifiable trend. As the lead investment manager at Sidoxia Capital Management, I spend less time sucking the last puff out of a cigarette, and spend more time opportunistically devoting resources to valuation-sensitive growth trends. As demonstrated with historical examples, following the popular trend du jour eventually leads to financial ruin and nightmares. Avoiding bubbles and pursuing fairly priced growth prospects is the way to achieve investment prosperity…and provide sweet dreams.