by Jeff Thomas, International Man:
At the end of a long, tiring day, we may choose to treat ourselves to a soothing bubble bath. Surrounded by steaming water and a froth of sweet-smelling bubbles, it’s easy to forget the cares of everyday life.
This fact is equally true of economic bubbles. When the markets are up, we’re inclined to feel as though life is rosy. Unfortunately, it does seem to be the norm that investors fail to recognize when a healthy up-market transforms into a dangerous bubble. We tend to be soothed into overlooking the fact that we’re in hot water, and economically, that’s not an advantageous situation to be in.
Periodically, any economy will experience bubbles. It’s bound to happen. Human nature dictates that, if the value of an asset is on the rise, the more success it experiences, the more we want to get in on the success.
Sadly, the great majority of investors have a tendency to fail to educate themselves on how markets work. It’s easier to just trust their broker. Unfortunately, our broker doesn’t make his living through our success; he makes it through brokering transactions. The more buys he can encourage us to make, the more commissions he enjoys.
It’s been said that a broker is “someone who invests your money until it’s gone,” and there’s a great deal of truth in that assessment.
And so, we can expect to continue to witness periodic bubbles in the markets. They’ll occur roughly as often as it takes for us to forget the devastation of the last one and we once again dive in, only to be sheared once again.
But we’re presently seeing an economic anomaly – a host of bubbles, inflating dramatically at the same time.
The Stock Market Bubble
Only a decade ago, stocks plummeted and billions were lost by investors. But then, before the system could be cleansed of the detritus, more money was artificially pumped into the system and stocks began to rise again.
Margin debt is now at an all-time high and complacency is at a maximum. The present condition looks quite a bit more like 1929 than 2008, and the stock market is overdue for a crash. This time, it promises to be much greater than before, as the debt that’s fueling the bull market is at a level that’s historically unprecedented.
Back in 1929, communications were poor and stock market trades were recorded in handwritten ledgers. Today, the recording is entirely electronic, and in addition, in order to minimize losses, the investor may have his broker set electronic stops that will ensure that a given stock is offered on the market automatically, if it drops below the stop price.
This works quite well as long as times are good, but, if there were to be a crash, what it means is that, even if a crash were to be triggered in the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep, the market would awake in the morning to a sudden collapse, as prices blew through the stops of countless investors.
Therefore, the collapse would be much swifter and much more severe than in 1929.
The Bond Market Bubble
This bubble could just as easily be termed a “debt bubble,” as bonds are simply a promise to pay a debt at a future date. (It’s important to note that the bond market consists of a far higher level of investment than the stock market and therefore has the potential to do far more damage in a crash.)
Bonds may be issued by companies, municipalities or central governments. By far, the largest portion of the bond market is that of Treasuries, or government-issued bonds.
Since 1944, the US has been in the catbird seat in the world, as its dollar has been the world’s default currency. But, as the US has, in recent decades, increasingly abused that privilege, the rest of the world has been looking for ways to extricate itself from this economic stranglehold.
With the introduction of new central banks in Asia, plus the new CIPS system (an alternative to the monopolistic SWIFT), it’s become increasingly possible for the East to wean itself from the dollar. Increasingly, this has meant dumping US Treasuries back into the system.
Bonds are presently in a bubble of epic proportions, and with every month, the foundation underneath them is crumbling more, due to ever-increasing dumping.
Even the perma-conservative Alan Greenspan now states that, “We are in a bond market bubble… Prices are too high… The bond market bubble will eventually be the critical issue.”
The Real Estate Bubble
In 1999, the Fed, then under Alan Greenspan, convinced the US president to repeal the Glass Steagall Act, freeing the banks to create the types of loans that helped cause the Great Depression. This, of course, led to the real estate crash of 2007, but instead of the banks going belly-up, they were rewarded for their misdeeds through bailouts that were paid for by taxpayers.
Consequently, although there was a significant correction in real estate prices, this didn’t result in prices dropping to fair value.
They have once again risen and, at this point, are overdue for a major correction. That correction is now well under way. Since it has begun at a time when other markets are also in peril, the level of bailout required for all of them at the same time is impossible to achieve.
Had each of these markets been allowed to collapse in the normal manner, as would occur in a free-market system, they would have done so at levels below the present ones and would have done less damage when they burst. Additionally, each bubble would have burst at its own, logical time.
Instead, all are being propped up artificially, far beyond their natural sell-by date.
For this reason, they’re so over-inflated that, when one bubble is popped, it’s all but certain that they’ll all go down together.
And so, effectively, the financial world is in a bubble bath. The investor is surrounded by soothing bubbles, each of which is rising, reassuring him that his investments are growing.
Although it should be clear to him that he’s in hot water, the majority of investors are holding on to their bonds, rubbing their hands over the rising sale prices of homes in their neighbourhood and considering taking out a loan to buy more stocks on margin.
The collapse will therefore come to most as a complete surprise.
Economic bubbles are normal. They’re created by the lack of forethought that’s common to human nature.