In Part 1 of this blog post I concluded with a lesson to be learned in how bubbles form in markets as small investors begin piling into a rapid growth scenario and that seeing this play out is a good time to back up and take a broader look at what’s going on. Let’s dig a little deeper into how this sort of bubble forms — and finally bursts.
Isolate a quantity of ‘anything’. Buyers buying that ‘anything’ starts driving up the price. Profit-minded investors see opportunity and join in. Prices continue higher. More people notice and buy in. Prices go still higher. More investors see easy money and pile on. This can continue for a long time — as long as buyers keep buying. However, if just about everyone who can buy is “all in” there is no amount of new news, hype, lies, spin etc that can bring any more buying into that ‘anything’. All buyers and all investors are pretty much all in. So what happens? The price stops rising. Investors get bored and decide to exit to chase something else. And only a little bit of selling can start making the price slide. What was once the hottest investment available can appear to sour and then more start bailing out. And more. And more. The price dives for no real fundamental or technical (forecasting) reason. It’s just a simple case of no more buyers to buy and some seller’s selling.
This reminds me of the joke about the woman who asks a friend for her thoughts on the hot, new restaurant in town. The friend responds, “Nobody goes there; it’s too crowded.” Indeed, when a stock or a market or an economy get too crowded, it’s usually a good sign to get out. One never wants to be the last buyer buying or the last seller selling. Especially technical analysis has a very hard time with market turns. Generally technical indicators revolve around the trend so an upward trend technically implies a continuation up and vice versa. This is the quant-driven seduction that eventually motivates the masses to be “all in” or “all out.” Once buying or selling power is exhausted, the trend turns but the systems just can’t foresee that. Instead, it takes the art side of a good trader to “smell” the change based on past experiences in similar scenarios.
And that is the sort of phenomenon we see unfolding before us right now. Behold the record recently set by U.S. investors which no one is talking about: index funds. An index fund is very simply a mutual fund comprised of a collection of stocks from a single index like the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones.
In the first two months of this year, investors dumped a record $131 billion into index funds according to ETFGI, LLP. That’s roughly a third of the total invested in index funds for the entire year in 2016. That, my friends, is what looks a great deal like the beginnings of a bubble. But let’s dig a little deeper and look at why this happens.
Since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, world markets have reacted sharply and quite positively. Trump’s campaign rhetoric was very pro-business, pro-growth, pro-investment. So naturally, investors and business managers alike responded with anticipation of growth. And investment activity generally follows public attitudes of those at the top of the investor food chain. By another name that might be called “piling in.”
At the bottom of that food chain are individual, “mom and pop” investors. These are folks who might have a few thousand dollars to move around in the market and who, concerned largely with retirement, react very quickly and violently to trends in the economy. So when newspaper headlines are awash with great news about job records and growth, their reaction is quite predictable. If markets and indexes are growing, the easy money is to throw cash at funds which they expect will act like a surf board and ride the wave. That might be called “even more piling in.”
The problem, as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, is that emotional investors get spooked very easily. There’s a sort of herd mentality among less sophisticated investors who don’t handle money in large quantities on a daily basis. And even the “mom & pop” investors are not so far removed from the last market crash that they have forgotten how quickly record highs can plunge to painful lows. When I talk to such investors — and when readers like you email me — I get a clear sense of lingering skepticism about confidence in this market, the economy, etc. As the unemployment number has fallen back toward a historically typical range, do we really believe that all those people found full-time, (good) jobs? Did all those retail establishments that were snuffed out in the great recession come back or do their slots in local commercial real estate still have “for lease” signs out front?
So here we have a challenging situation of more and more investors piling in to try to ride the new wave (or bubble?) with many of them more sensitive and even lacking trust to do so with confidence. With that in mind, it only takes a small trigger to get folks to consider pulling their money out. And when a few begin pulling, a lot take notice; that’s when the bubble bursts. We’ve seen it before and it is inevitable we will see it again. Markets at record highs don’t keep on achieving higher highs forever and ever. Eventually, they must correct. They always have, and they likely always will.
Per “the trend is your friend”, the trend-driven systems will only project higher highs. Following them means buy, buy, buy. Just as the flip-driven RE bubble encouraged exactly the same. Pile in. Get yours. Don’t miss out. The Jones’ are making a fortune in these markets, so why not you too? Realize those gains. Make it faster. More-more-more! Hurry. Let’s kill the goose and get ALL of the gold at once.
And then the goose is dead. No more gold. No more buyers. Bubble is bursting. Bubble has burst. Run for the exits.
So what to do about this? I’m not arguing that there’s no money to be made on the way to the top. No one knows where the top really is. But rest assured the longer the ride, the closer to the top we are and the sooner the crash will come. That’s why it’s important to be very picky about the stocks and options you keep on the way up and even more strategic about preparing for the ride down. Those require two completely different strategies, but big money can be made both ways.
Prepare yourselves. That means learning how to make money when the markets are falling. Do you understand how to short stock? Do you understand put options? Inverse ETFs? Do you know which is likely to be best for your own risk profile? These are all topics to know or get to know…ASAP. If you don’t know these well, speak up by emailing me [email protected] and I can cover such knowledge in the near future.
In the meantime, while the fundamentals and technicals continue to encourage “buy, buy, buy” the art-side of my approach is growing caution. I smell a correction. There’s too many higher-highs at record levels for me to believe that records are just going to keep on coming. It never has before.
So do I think it’s time to sell now? No, my long-term views driven by science and art still forecasts DOW 30K in the next few years. But, in the shorter-term I’m more attracted to what might be called defensive or more bullet-proof investing opportunities. For instance, I’ve recently bought into in a very little-known robotics chip manufacturer. This company’s stock is already on pace to double in value in just a few months, and options on this stock are doing far better. No matter what the economy does, robotics technology is here to stay and will grow for the foreseeable future. Bullish plays in that kind of opportunity is where I want to take investing risks now.
If you believe record high markets do not automatically beget record high markets forever (if you lack enough life experience to know better, just take a look at any long-term chart of the DOW, S&P or similar, note record high points and then what follows soon thereafter), you might want to be thinking about those kinds of bear-resistant opportunities too. They facilitate continuing to ride the bull while lowering your risk exposure by focusing in on stocks likely be more resilient when the bear (correction) finally takes a big bite. Corrections tend to be fairly quick, often volatile and typically painful for those that are complacent or are lulled into a belief that bull markets are forever.
Again, if you would like me to delve into portfolio-protecting details, how to profit in bear markets and similar, email me at [email protected] I write these articles based on reader input & questions so let me know what you want to see or learn.