(Note to readers: A small number of readers reported receiving a blank email of today's Thoughts from the Frontline, and so we decided to resend the letter in order to ensure that all readers were getting it.)
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
You can almost feel it in the fall air (unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere). The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It is an exhilarating feeling, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over with it. There is nothing like a rising market to help lift our mood. 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 and then step aside before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.
This week we'll think about bubbles. Specifically, we'll have a look at part of the chapter on bubbles from my latest book, Code Red, which we launched last week. At the end of the letter, for your amusement, is a link to a short video of what you might hear if Jack Nicholson were playing the part of Ben Bernanke (or Janet Yellen?) on the witness stand, defending the extreme measures of central banks. A bit of a spoof, in good fun, but there is just enough there to make you wonder what if … and then smile. Economics can be so much fun if we let it.
I decided to use this part of the book when numerous references to bubbles popped into my inbox this week. When these bubbles finally burst, let no one exclaim that they were black swans, unforeseen events. Maybe because we have borne witness to so many crashes and bear markets in the past few decades, we have gotten better at discerning familiar patterns in the froth, reminiscent of past painful episodes.
Let me offer you three such bubble alerts that came my way today. The first is from my friend Doug Kass, who wrote:
I will address the issue of a stock market bubble next week, but here is a tease and fascinating piece of data: Since 1990, the P/E multiple of the S&P 500 has appreciated by about 2% a year; in 2013, the S&P's P/E has increased by 18%!
Then, from Jolly Olde London, comes one Toby Nangle, of Threadneedle Investments (you gotta love that name), who found the following chart, created a few years ago at the Bank of England. At least when Mervyn King was there they knew what they were doing. In looking at the chart, pay attention to the red line, which depicts real asset prices. As in they know they are creating a bubble in asset prices and are very aware of how it ends and proceed full speed ahead anyway. Damn those pesky torpedoes.
This is the only chart that I’ve found that outlines how an instigator of QE believes QE’s end will impact asset prices. The Bank of England published it in Q3 2011, and it tells the story of their expectation that while QE was in operation there would be a massive rise in real asset prices, but that this would dissipate and unwind over time, starting at the point at which the asset purchases were complete.
Oh, dear gods. Really? I can see my friends Nouriel Roubini or Marc Faber doing that chart, but the Bank of England? Really?!?
Then, continuing with our puckish thoughts, we look at stock market total margin debt (courtesy of those always puckish blokes at the Motley Fool). They wonder if, possibly, maybe, conceivably, perchance this is a warning sign?
And we won’t even go into the long list of stocks that are selling for large multiples, not of earnings but of SALES. As in dotcom-era valuations.
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.
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.…