Avoiding buying into the peak of booms and selling at the bottom of a bust is one of key skills of any investor. But what causes them? The recently published book entitled “Boom and Bust” by academics William Quinn and John D. Turner attempts to answer that question by a close analysis of historical market manias.
I found it a rather slow read to begin with but it proved to be a very thorough and interesting review of the subject. It covers bubbles through the ages such as the Mississippi and South Sea schemes back in the seventeen hundreds, through the railway and cycle manias plus Australian land boom of Victorian times to those in more living memory. That includes the Wall Street boom and 1929 crash, the Dot.com bubble of the 1990s and the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007/8.
The latter resulted in a world-wide financial crisis with particularly damaging effects in the USA and UK. Banks had to be bailed out and bank shareholders lost their lifetime savings. But the dot.com bubble had relatively minor impacts on the general economy.
I managed to sell a business and retire as a result of the dot.com bubble at the age of 50 because it was obvious that IT companies in general had become very highly valued. Software and internet businesses with no profits, even no sales, had valuations put on them that bore no relation to conventional valuations of businesses and forecasts of future profits were generally pie in the sky. One of the things the authors point out is that insiders generally benefit from booms while inexperienced retail investors and unwise speculators with little knowledge of an industry are often the losers.
How are bubbles caused? The authors identify three big factors which they call the “bubble triangle” – speculation, money/credit and marketability. The latter is very important. For example, houses owned by occupiers tend to be part of markets that are sluggish and not prone to volatility as buying and selling houses is a slow process. But when sub-prime mortgages were created a whole new market was brought into being where mortgages could be easily traded. At the same time, the finance for mortgages was made easier to obtain.
The latter was by driven by political decisions to encourage home ownership by easier credit and by the relaxation of regulations. Indeed it is obvious from reading the book that politicians are one of the major sources of booms. Governments can easily create booms, but they then have difficulty in controlling the excesses and managing the subsequent busts.
The Dot.com boom was partly driven by technological innovation that attracted the imagination of the public and investors. It might have contributed positively to the development of new technologies, new services and hence to the economy, but most companies launched in that era subsequently failed or proved to be poor investments in terms of return on capital invested. Amazon is one of the few success stories. As the book points out, market bubbles tend to disprove the theory that markets are efficient. It is clear that sometimes they become irrational.
There are particularly good chapters in the book on the Japanese land bubble in the 1980s and the development of China’s stock markets which may not be familiar to many readers.
The authors tackle the issue of whether bubbles can be predicted and to some extent they can. But a good understanding of all the factors that can contribute is essential for doing so. Media comments can contribute to the formation of bubbles by promoting companies or technologies but can also suppress bubbles if they make informed comments. But this is what the authors say on the Bitcoin bubble and the impact of social media and blogs: “The average investor was much more likely to encounter cranks, uninformed journalists repeating the misinformation of cranks, bitcoin holders trying to attract new investors to increase its price and advertisements for bitcoin trading platforms”. They also say: “Increasingly the nature of the news media is shifting in a direction that makes it very difficult for informed voices to be heard above the noise”.
Incidentally it’s worth reading an article by Phil Oakley in the latest issue of Investors Chronicle entitled “Tech companies still look good”. He tackles the issue of whether we are in another Dot.com era where technology companies are becoming over-valued. His conclusions are mixed. Some big established companies such as the FANGs have growing sales and profits and their share prices are not necessarily excessive. But some recent IPOs such as Airbnb look questionable. Tesla’s share price has rocketed up this year but one surely needs to ask an experienced motor industry professional whether the valuation makes sense or not.
The authors suggest that buying technology shares can be like a casino. Most of the bets will be losing ones but you may hit a jackpot. I would suggest you need to pay close attention to the business and its fundamentals when purchasing shares in such companies.
In conclusion the book “Boom and Bust” is well worth reading by investors, and essential reading for central bankers and politicians!
Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )
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