It’s been just over a year since the last stock market crash, and investors are wondering if another one is on the way. With economic momentum slowing as the effects of fiscal stimulus wear off, it’s no surprise that equities seem to be fading, too. Meanwhile, labor shortages and stretched supply chains remain lingering issues, while inflation is starting to be passed on to consumers. It seems like this should be a risk-off environment. But retail traders appear to be the only investors having a good time. Does that mean we’re in a bubble and due for a pop?
Jeremy Grantham, market historian and co-founder of the Boston investment firm GMO, debates the subject with Bloomberg Opinion’s John Authers. His remarks have been edited and condensed.
Robert Shiller, whom you’ve praised, compared the rise in speculative assets like Bitcoin and NFTs to the fad of Beanie Babies. But he declined to say that there’s a bubble in stocks. What elements of a bubble do you see in a stock market that crashed pretty hard just one year ago, and why would it crash again?
GRANTHAM: First, the Covid crash is quite distinct from a classic long bull market ending, as they usually do in a bubble and bust. As a sharp external effect, it was more like the 1987 technical crash caused by portfolio insurance: a short hit and a sharp recovery. Looking back, although they were painful at the time, they were mere blips on the longer-term buildup of confidence toward a market peak.
The last 12 months have been a classic finale to an 11-year bull market. Peak overvaluation across each decile by price to sales, so that the most expensive 10% is worse than it was in the 2000 tech bubble and the remaining nine deciles are much more expensive. all measures of debt and margin are at peaks. Speculative measures such as call option volumes, volume of individual trading and quantities of over-the-counter or penny stocks are all at records.
Robinhood and commission-free retail trading have driven a surge of new investors with no experience of past bubbles and busts. So the scale of craziness is larger. Cryptocurrencies represent over $1 trillion of claims on total asset value while adding nothing — pure dilution.
Quantumscape, my own investment from over seven years ago, is a brilliant research lab. For a minute, it sold above GM or Panasonic’s market value, even with no sales.
Finally, Dogecoin, AMC and Gamestop — worth billions in the market and not even pretending to be serious investments. AMC is up nearly 10 times since before the pandemic even though box office is down nearly 80%! Dogecoin was created as a joke to make fun of cryptocurrencies being worthless, and not only has it taken off, but it’s such a success that second-level joke cryptocurrencies making fun of Dogecoin have gone to multibillion-dollar valuations. Meanwhile, other cryptocurrencies have seen success purely on the basis of their scatological names.
“Meme” investing — the idea that something is worth investing in, or rather gambling on, simply because it is funny — has become commonplace. It’s a totally nihilistic parody of actual investing. This is it guys, the biggest U.S. fantasy trip of all time.
In January, you wrote “all bubbles end with near universal acceptance that the current one will not end yet.” This reason this time is the belief that interest rates will be kept near zero forever. But members of the Fed are penciling in a couple of rate hikes by the end of 2023. What would you do now if you were the Fed chair?
GRANTHAM: All four chairmen post-Volcker have underestimated the potential economic damage from inflated asset prices, particularly housing, deflating rapidly. The role of higher asset prices on increasing inequality also hasn’t been considered. Asset bubbles are extremely dangerous.
As Fed chair, I would have moved to curtail U.S. stocks in 1998-1999 and housing in 2005-2007. Similarly, today I would act to deflate all asset prices as carefully as I could, knowing that an earlier decline, however painful, would be smaller and less dangerous than waiting — the analogy of jumping off an accelerating bus seems a suitably painful one.
This current event is particularly dangerous because bonds, stocks and real estate are all inflated together. Even commodities have surged. That perfecta and a half has never happened before, anywhere. The closest was Japan in 1989 with two hyper-inflated asset categories: record land and real estate, worse than the South Sea bubble, together with record P/E’s in stocks recorded at the time as 65x. The consequences for the economy were dire, and neither land nor stocks have yet returned to their 1989 peaks!
The pain from loss of perceived value will only get more intense as prices rise from here. In short, the Fed since Volcker has been pretty clueless and remains so. What has been more remarkable, though, is the persistent confidence shown toward all of these four Fed bosses despite the demonstrable ineptness in dealing with asset bubbles.
You’ve made it clear timing the end of a bubble is challenging. But you’ve also pointed to this one bursting in “late spring or early summer” — in other words, right now. Are we still on the cusp of a crash? What can we expect the fall to look like? And if the market should drop, how do you decide when to buy back in?
Checking all the necessary boxes of a speculative peak, the U.S. market was entitled historically to start unraveling any time after January this year. One odd characteristic of the three biggest bubbles in the U.S. — 1929, 1972 and 2000 — is that the very end was preceded by blue chips outperforming more aggressive, higher beta stocks. In 2000, for five months from March, tech-related stocks crashed by 50% as the S&P 500 was unchanged, and the balance of the market was up over 15%. In 1972, before the biggest bear market since the Depression, the S&P outperformed the average stock by 35%. And in 1929, the effect was even more extreme, with the racy S&P low-priced index down nearly 30% before the broad market crashed.
Today, the Nasdaq and Russell 2000 are below the level of Feb. 9 four and a half months later, and many of the leading growth stocks are down. (Tesla has fallen from $900 to $625.) The SPAC ETF is down 25% since February. Meanwhile, the S&P has chugged higher by 8% since Feb. 9.
Probably the asset that most resembles the Nasdaq in 2000 is Bitcoin, and it has been cut in half over the last several weeks. In 2000, the Nasdaq crashing 50% was a perfect warning shot for the broad market six months in advance.
I will admit, though, that the extent and speed of the new stimulus program was surprising and was guaranteed to help a bubble keep going. Equally surprising was the success of the vaccination program in much of the developed world. Together, they should make the bubble longer-lived and bigger.
What it will not do, though, is change the justifiable market value that will be reached one day. Therefore, as always, the higher we go the longer and deeper the pain. Getting back in is technically easy but psychologically difficult: Start to average in as the market reaches more reasonable levels, say 18x earnings.
AUTHERS: To illustrate the point Jeremy made, the difference in behavior between the Nasdaq 100 and S&P 500 in 2000 was dramatic. (And there were plenty of far more stratospheric pure dot-com companies outside the Nasdaq 100 that peaked at the same time.) The S&P still carried on horizontally for two or three months before nose-diving, much as it has moved horizontally for the past two months.
How similar do things look now? It’s always a problem putting Bitcoin on a chart with anything else, because its performance is so remarkable. But yes, there is something rather similar about how the cryptocurrency has dived while the S&P moves sideways.
Note that there was already an uncomfortable similarity even before the Bitcoin price dropped below $30,000 this morning.
One more analogy with how the most exciting speculative assets of this era seem already to have peaked: The SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) boom topped in February. So did the spectacularly successful ARK Innovation ETF run by Cathie Wood, which is full of exciting plays on future technology investments. These are arguably better comparisons to the dot-com era, when companies went public without ever having generated earnings or even sales, and when there was great excitement about new technology. That excitement has proved to be justified two decades later, but it didn’t stop a lot of people from losing money in 2000.
To continue on the issue of timing the stock market, it seems to me that timing the bond market could be critical. For years, the standard point made by equity bulls has been that even if share prices look historically expensive, bonds appear even more extreme, Can we see a true unwinding of the stock-market bubble without first witnessing an unwinding of the bond bubble?