This is a story about a fictitious bear and an imaginary bull...
To explain how a speculative bubble bursts is very easy indeed. Investors are like a herd of cattle. They are not rational actors. When a critical mass of investors become spooked and start selling off their investments, this creates a market with more sellers than buyers, which means the asking price for financial instruments has to be lower to attract more buyers. Pretty soon, there is a stampede, as all the investors try to 'cash in' their investments and take their profits or minimise their losses. The asking price drops lower and lower, and buyers simply wait, knowing that the ever growing crowd of panicked sellers will underbid each other in a desperate attempt to offload their devaluing assets.
Anyway, that's so simple and obvious that it doesn't warrant further discussion. What I want to write about is what causes a speculative bubble in the first place.
We could look at historical examples, like the tulip mania during the Dutch Golden Age, with tulip bulb prices peaking in 1637, before crashing spectacularly. The Madness of Crowds explains the crash, but not the initial price bubble, in any satisfactory way for the modern financial markets.
To understand your average investor in publicly listed companies on the major stock exchanges, you only need to understand two human characteristics: greed and laziness.
The greed part is simple. Any of your friends who have reached a point of economic prosperity where they have disposable income are likely to have 'invested' some of their wealth. It's highly unlikely that they made angel investments in small startup companies where they knew the founders, the business model and understood the domain in which the embryonic enterprise operated. Instead, they thought they could make a quick buck by buying shares in a major corporation.
The laziness part is slightly more complex. The lazy divide into two groups. The speculative private investor looking to make a quick buck isn't interested in doing any actual work in order to earn their extra wealth. One phonecall to your stockbroker, having read a stock tip in your preferred newspaper does not count as an investment of labour, and so it is clear that these investors are lazy.
The second group are institutional investment managers: the people who look after pension funds. Now, you can ignore profit:equity (PE) ratios, yields, earnings per share (EPS), turnover and EBITDAs (Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation). You can ignore the philosophy of Warren Buffet, who is an active shareholder. The pension fund manager is passive and invests for one reason and one reason alone: the market capitalisation of the public company has reached a certain threshold. That is to say, the market values a public company above a certain amount of money.
To understand market cap, let's take Apple Inc. as an example. We take the number of Apple shares that are issued (5.4 billion at time of writing) and multiply that by the share price ($118 at time of writing) and we arrive at a market capitalisation of $637 billion. That is to say, if you had a spare $637 billion in your bank account, you could buy Apple outright*: every single share. You would be the sole shareholder of Apple, which is the biggest company in the world, by market capitalisation.
Now, Apple might have absolutely dog shit products lined up for the next 10 years. The CEO, Tim Cook could be an absolute moron who's going to run the company into the ground. The institutional investment manager doesn't give two hoots. They're going to buy Apple stock simply because it's highly valued. In fact, they're going to buy ALL the highly valued companies, above a certain market capitalisation.
In the UK, we have a kind of football league, with the premier league being the FTSE100 and then the league below being the FTSE250. As the market caps change, companies drop in and out of these 'leagues'. Consequently, investment managers will buy the new entrants and sell the ones that drop out. Easy as pie, right?
The laziness that drives all this is retirement. People saving for retirement are too lazy to make their own investments that ensure the value of their pension is not eroded by inflation, so they get an investment manager to 'track' the value of an index like the FTSE100, which generally outperforms inflation, over a long period of time. That makes sense, right? Money invested in the 'best' companies, should outperform money that's just sitting in the bank earning interest.
Furthermore, when people come to retire, they want their pension pot to be managed for income not for growth, but they're still too lazy to shop around to make sure that the yield or dividends that they are receiving on their pot of money give them the best possible income, while also protecting their capital.
In essence, the biggest part of our economy is driven by greedy lazy people. Instead of the industrious and ingenious entrepreneurs finding it easy to borrow money or sell a share of their company in order to raise the capital they need to grow, the sad reality is that almost all of the wealth in the developed world is ploughed into corporate behemoths that have already extracted all their value from the public, in order to keep people who have nearly reached the end of their lives in the manner to which they have become accustomed to.
Yes, that's right. By the time a company comes to the point where it floats on a stock exchange, it has peaked. It's time for the original founders, angel investors, venture capitalists, private equity and other shareholders to now cash in and fleece the public by offering their shares in an Initial Public Offering (IPO). Because the company has reached a certain 'valuation' (as decided by market sentiment and the bullshit written by the underwriting investment bank in the prospectus) then it has to be bought by the institutional investors, because it is highly likely to have a market cap that will put it straight into the FTSE100 or FTSE250. The companies with the smallest market cap in the FTSE250 are around £400m; for comparison Twitter floated with a market cap of $30,000m, which is 75 times more.
Let's take a hypothetical example. If I was to build a company with a turnover of approximately £20m per month, or £240m per year, then one might say that it could be valued using a rough multiplier of 2x turnover at £500m. That would easily be enough to make for an attractive IPO, because the market cap is going to attract all the institutional investors who have to buy FTSE250 companies. In effect, the IPO is underwritten by the pension tracker funds.
Therefore, greedy lazy people buy dog shit stock, it appreciates in value because of market sentiment - "ooh the price is going up, let's buy more" - and the fact that public companies can use their shares to acquire other companies (growth through acquisition) until they have a dominant market position (some may say monopoly, ahem!).
Growth through acquisition is not really growth. If I have 100% of the shares in company A, and 0% of the shares in company B, and then I use 49% of my shares and a bit of cash to acquire company B, such that I now own 51% of company A and 51% of company B, no new value has been created. There may be cost savings, there may be benefits from anticompetitive practices, but really all I'm doing is increasing the market cap of the parent company, hoping to move from the FTSE250 to the FTSE100, where a whole load more pension funds will have to buy shares for their index trackers.
The same deal goes on in the US, where companies are trying to IPO at a certain valuation in order to get into the Dow Jones or the NASDAQ, such that the US tracker funds will have to invest. The public - mostly pensioners - get fleeced.
So, in conclusion, the cause of a speculative bubble is actually institutional. Because the pension funds are so massive and they are passive investors, using index tracker funds, there is an immense amount of fake value created by mergers and acquisitions, as growth by acquisition carries such huge rewards. This starves the companies - who are truly growing and innovating - of much needed investment capital, stifling the economy and instead creating corporate giants who are too big to fail.
Eventually, the central banks and the rest of the money multiplying machine reaches the limit of how much the value of dinosaur institutions can be artificially inflated. These dinosaurs move at glacial pace and stifle change and competition. The lack of efficiency of markets to deliver capital to those companies who have true growth potential, undermines the economy for years, until finally things reach breaking point.
Overvalued companies, market disruption by venture-capital backed challengers, the faltering of capital gain and the end of effortless profits, are the things that spook the lazy, greedy investors. So, then begins the market crash.
The dying behemoths are dangerous animals. For example, the 'too big to fail' banks were able to hold the world's largest economies to ransom, with the threat of unimaginable disruption to our systems of payment and borrowing that underpin so many mortgages, overdrafts, credit cards, car loans and how we get and spend our wages each month.
For now, the status quo persists, because the idea of smoothly transitioning to truly free and competitive markets is beyond comprehension, such is the web of complexity that has been created by supranational organisations that have swallowed so many competitors around the globe.
Until we move to active investment rather than passive investment, we will always have the cycles of boom & bust.
* - You couldn't actually buy all Apple's shares for $118 each, because the very process of buying up all the available stock for sale would drive up the price. I merely offer a simplified example.