The Anatomy of a Bubble

I have just completed reading a good book by James Montier, “Behavioural Investing, a practitioner’s guide to applying behavioural finance”

One of the more interest chapters was ‘The Anatomy of a Bubble’. James postulates that bubbles tend to move through 5 stages:

  1. displacement
  2. credit creation
  3. euphoria
  4. financial distress
  5. revulsion

The author suggests that displacement is usually an external event that creates opportunities in one sector that are greater than the opportunities lost by the event. In the US, the most recent bubble was caused by the internet.

The boom thus produced is given a mighty boost by monetary expansion. This idea is in line with the Austrian economic theory of what causes the business cycle – but more on that another day. James argues that in 1998 because of the LTCM and Y2K crises, the Feds cut the Fed Fund rates to protect the financial system. But the Feds overdid it and as a resultant liquidity surge moved into financial assets.

James defines ‘euphoria’ as the stage when speculation for price increases is added to investment and sales. He takes the view that between 1991 and 2002, the US experience fitted this description.

Financial distress follows an environment he calls the ‘critical stage’; he says the two – critical stage and financial distress tend to move hand in glove. The critical stage is marked by insider selling as was the case in2000/1. James believes that the US passed such a stage between 2000 to 2002.

The final stage of the bubble cycle is the ‘capitulation stage’ – a stage where people are so badly scarred by their experience that they no longer wish to participate in the markets. The US still has to see this stage. Certainly it was not present in 2002 – if two measures that James uses are any guide. Firstly, the strategists remained bullish. Secondly volume remained high. James takes the same view as many technical analysts that market bottoms are usually marked with collapse in volume. This has yet to happen.

What sort of valuation decreases need to occur to mark a possible bottom? The author suggests at the very least a 30% decline from the highs.

Next week the market will be down to what I have been calling the minimum buy zone. If the 13-w (quarterly trend) uptrend is to hold, then the low at 1370.60 basis cash S&P needs to hold. Breach of that low will mean that whatever we have in the 13-w, we no longer have an uptrend (the sequence of higher highs and higher lows will be broken). I have argued that the massive injection of funds by the Feds since August 2007 will keep the bears away until the Feds are forced to raise rates in 2008 – when the liquidity finds its way into the inflation numbers. For this reason I believe that the probabilities favour the 13-w low holding. That is the low risk idea.

But an idea needs to measured against present tense information and so far there has been little sign of slowing downside momentum as the market approaches the buy zone. This is a tell-tale sign that the zone will hold. If momentum continues to build into the core zone, 1393 to 1370, this will be a warning that the zone will give way.

If that occurs, then, we may be seeing the start of the down leg that will culminate in James’ revulsion stage. By the way, a point James makes and one that accords with my experience: in the revulsion stage, the negative correlation between stocks and interest rates will no longer apply.

That’s not the way I would describe it but the result is the same. In my jargon, we are in a phase of the business cycle where once a bear market starts, the Feds will be unable to limit the damage to the economy by lowering rates.

I am looking forward to next week; it should provide interesting opportunities.

4 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Bubble”

  1. Ray

    Behavioral Finance and Behavioral Economics are closely related fields which apply scientific research on human and social cognitive and emotional biases.

    Economic decisions and how they affect market prices, returns and the allocation of resources can then be made.

    I have been invited to attend a luncheon forum on Hedonic Arbitrage next Monday at Tanglin Club when Prof Shlomo Benartzi of UCLA and author on behavioral economics will be one of the speakers.

    I look forward to what he has to say and discuss about behavioral economics which is closely related to behavioral finance.

  2. Ray

    I am happy to say I have learned something new about Hedonic Arbitrage, which is basically a set of defaults or options people take to be ‘happy.’

    As I cannot attach a brief on Prof Shlomo Benartzi, which I attached to my post at STC Club, the luncheon talk has been very informative.

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