[This post is an excerpt from a recent TSI commentary]
Many assets show signs of being immersed in bubbles right now. The most obvious example is the cryptocurrency speculation, which includes Bitcoin, the numerous and rapidly-multiplying Bitcoin alternatives and, more recently, the stocks that are involved in cryptocurrency ‘mining’. Other examples are the broad US stock market, the stocks of companies involved in social media and/or e-commerce, the market for junk bonds, and a group of junior mining stocks where just the hint of a possible discovery has led to spectacular price gains and market capitalisations that bear no resemblance to current reality.
The most enthusiastic participants in each bubble believe that although bubbles exist elsewhere, there is a special set of circumstances that justifies the seemingly high valuations in the asset that they happen to like. For example, many of the cryptocurrency enthusiasts believe that the US stock market’s valuation doesn’t make sense but that Bitcoin’s valuation does, and many stock-market bulls believe that the S&P500′s current level is justified whereas Bitcoin’s valuation is ridiculous. However, the bubbles are all related in that they all stem from the returns on conservative investments having been driven to near zero by the actions of central banks.
Now, just because an asset is immersed in an investment bubble doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. Buying something after it enters bubble territory can be very profitable, because huge gains will often occur AFTER valuation reaches a point where it no longer makes sense to a level-headed investor. The problem is, if you ‘know’ that a particular asset is immersed in a bubble then you will be constantly on the lookout for evidence that the bubble has ended and that the inevitable implosion has begun. In effect, you will constantly have one foot out the door and will be acutely vulnerable to being shaken out of your position in response to a normal correction.
A related problem is that once something has entered bubble territory the normal corrections tend to be vicious. Each correction will look like the start of the ultimate collapse, so unless you are a true believer (someone who believes so strongly in the story that they are oblivious to the absurdity of the valuation) you will be unable to hold through. For example, during the first half of September the Bitcoin price had a peak-to-trough decline of about 40%. This looked at the time as if it could be the first leg of a total collapse, but it turned out to be just a short-term correction. Only a true believer in the cryptocurrency story could have held through this correction.
Eventually, of course, a vicious price decline turns out to be the start of a bubble implosion. The true believers will naturally hold, thinking that it’s just another bump on the road to a much higher price. They will continue holding while all the gains made during the bubble are given back.
An implication is that you need to be a true believer to do phenomenally well from an investment bubble, but if you are a true believer then you will be wiped out after the bubble collapses.
Alternatively, you may decide to participate in an investment bubble while knowing it’s a bubble. In doing so you may be able to generate some good profits, but in general you will be too quick to sell. Therefore, while the bubble is in progress your profits will pale in comparison to those achieved by the true believers, although you will stand a better chance of retaining your profits over the long haul.
The worst-case scenario is to be a non-believer and non-participant in a bubble, but to eventually get persuaded by the relentless rise in price that special circumstances/fundamentals justify the valuation and that a large commitment is warranted. That is, to become a true believer late in the game. This worst-case scenario is what happens to most members of the general public.