Three Delusions: Paper Wealth, a Booming Economy, and Bitcoin
Written by John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
Delusions are often viewed as reflecting some deficiency in reasoning ability. The risk of thinking about delusions in this way is that it encourages the belief that logical, intelligent people are incapable of delusion. An examination of the history of financial markets suggests a different view. Specifically, faced with unusual or extraordinary price advances, there is a natural tendency (particularly in the presence of crowds, feedback loops, and potential rewards) to look for explanations. The problem isn’t that logic or reason has failed, but that the inputs have been distorted, and in the attempt to justify the advance amid the speculative excitement, careful data-gathering is replaced by a tendency to confuse temporary factors for fundamental underpinnings.
While true psychological delusions are different from financial ones, a similar principle is suggested by psychological research. Delusions are best understood not as deficiencies in logic, but rather as explanations that have been logically reached on the basis of distorted inputs. For example, individuals with delusions appear vulnerable to differences in perception that may involve more vivid, intense, or emotionally-charged sensory input. While those differences might be driven by neurological factors, the person experiencing these unusual perceptions looks to develop an explanation. Maher emphasized that despite the skewed input, the delusions themselves are derived by completely normal reasoning processes. Similarly, Garety & Freeman found that delusions appear to reflect not a defect in reasoning itself, but a defect “which is best described as a data-gathering bias, a tendency for people with delusions to gather less evidence” so they tend to jump to conclusions.
The reason that delusions are so hard to fight with logic is that delusions themselves are established through the exercise of logic. Responsibility for delusions is more likely to be found in distorted perception or inadequate information. The problem isn’t disturbed reasoning, but distorted or inadequate inputs that the eyes, ears, and mind perceive as undeniably real.
Let’s begin by examining the anatomy of speculative bubbles. We’ll follow with a discussion of three popular delusions that have taken hold of the crowd, and the premises that drive them: the delusion of paper wealth, the delusion of a booming economy, and the delusion that is Bitcoin.
The anatomy of speculative bubbles
Across centuries of history, speculative financial bubbles have repeatedly emerged from the seeds of distorted financial environments, where speculative behavior increasingly produces self-reinforcing feedback. Specifically, the speculative behavior of the crowd results in rising prices that both impress and reward speculators, and in turn encourage even greater speculation. The more impressed the crowd becomes with the result of its own behavior, the more that behavior persists, and the more unstable the system becomes, until finally the flapping wings of a butterfly become sufficient to provoke a collapse, launching a self-reinforcing feedback loop in the opposite direction.
The 1929 bubble was built on the foundation of real economic prosperity during the roaring 20’s, but the late stages of that boom were largely fueled by debt and easy money. Observing the persistent market advance, investors largely ignored the contribution of their own speculation in producing that advance. Rather, as traditional valuation measures became increasingly stretched, the first impulse of investors was to try to justify the elevated valuations in novel ways, which gradually became nothing but excuses for continued speculation. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote decades ago in his book, The Great Crash 1929:
“It was still necessary to reassure those who required some tie, however tenuous, to reality. This process of reassurance eventually achieved the status of a profession. However, the time had come, as in all periods of speculation, when men sought not to be persuaded by the reality of things but to find excuses for escaping into the new world of fantasy.”
Keep in mind that yes, the economy was strong, business was booming, and money was easy. The problem was that investors stopped thinking about stocks as a claim on a very, very long-term stream of discounted cash flows. Valuations didn’t matter. It was enough that the economy was expanding. It was enough that earnings were rising. Put simply, the trend of earnings and the economy, not the actual level of valuation, became the justification for buying stocks. Graham & Dodd described this process:
“During the latter stage of the bull market culminating in 1929, the public acquired a completely different attitude towards the investment merits of common stocks… Why did the investing public turn its attention from dividends, from asset values, and from average earnings to transfer it almost exclusively to the earnings trend, i.e. to the changes in earnings expected in the future? The answer was, first, that the records of the past were proving an undependable guide to investment; and, second, that the rewards offered by the future had become irresistibly alluring.
“Along with this idea as to what constituted the basis for common-stock selection emerged a companion theory that common stocks represented the most profitable and therefore the most desirable media for long-term investment. This gospel was based on a certain amount of research, showing that diversified lists of common stocks had regularly increased in value over stated intervals of time for many years past.
“These statements sound innocent and plausible. Yet they concealed two theoretical weaknesses that could and did result in untold mischief. The first of these defects was that they abolished the fundamental distinctions between investment and speculation. The second was that they ignored the price of a stock in determining whether or not it was a desirable purchase.
“The notion that the desirability of a common stock was entirely independent of its price seems incredibly absurd. Yet the new-era theory led directly to this thesis… An alluring corollary of this principle was that making money in the stock market was now the easiest thing in the world. It was only necessary to buy ‘good’ stocks, regardless of price, and then to let nature take her upward course. The results of such a doctrine could not fail to be tragic.”
– Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, Security Analysis, 1934
The 2000 tech bubble featured the same process in a slightly different form. The inputs and premises that investors observed were valid, but incomplete. Economic growth and employment were strong, and money was easy. The internet did indeed have tremendous growth prospects. But again, as the advance became more speculative, investors largely ignored the impact of their own speculation in producing that advance. Instead, their first impulse was again to try to justify the elevated valuations in novel ways (recall “price-to-eyeballs”). By March 2000, on the basis of historically reliable valuation measures, I projected that a retreat to normal valuations would require an -83% plunge in tech stocks. In the 19 months that followed, that estimate turned out to be precise for the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 Index.
The mortgage bubble leading up to the global financial crisis was built on the same sort of distorted inputs, this time fueled by the insistence of the Federal Reserve to hold interest rates at just 1% after the tech collapse. As yield-starved investors looked for relatively safe alternatives to low-yielding Treasury securities, they turned to mortgage securities, which had to-date never experienced major losses. Wall Street responded to the appetite for more “product” by creating new mortgage securities, which required the creation of new mortgages, and led to the creation of no-doc, zero-down mortgages and the willingness to lend to anyone with a pulse. All of this produced a glorious period of temporary prosperity and rising prices. As usual, instead of recognizing the impact of their own speculation in producing the advance, the first impulse of investors was to try to justify why elevated asset and housing valuations made sense.
As the bubble expanded, Janet Yellen, then the head of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, offered this benign assessment of the risks:
“First, if the bubble were to deflate on its own, would the effect on the economy be exceedingly large? Second, is it unlikely that the Fed could mitigate the consequences? Third, is monetary policy the best tool to use to deflate a house-price bubble? My answers to these questions in the shortest possible form are, ‘no,’ ‘no,’ and ‘no’ … It seems that the arguments against trying to deflate a bubble outweigh those in favor of it. So, my bottom line is that monetary policy should react to rising prices for houses or other assets only insofar as they affect the central bank’s goal variables—output, employment, and inflation.”
Missing from Yellen’s benign assessment was the fact that the speculative distortion and debt buildup enabled by the bubble itself would be the primary driver of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. The Fed appears to exclude such risks from its thinking, despite the fact that the worst economic collapses in history have generally gone hand-in-hand with episodes of financial speculation and their inevitable collapse.
In the apparent attempt to bookend her term as Fed Chair by brushing aside the current progression toward financial collapse with an equally benign and milquetoast risk assessment, Janet Yellen observed on December 14, 2017:
“If there were an adjustment in asset valuations, the stock market, what impact would it have on the economy, and would it provoke financial stability concerns? … I think when we look at other indicators of financial stability risks, there’s nothing flashing red there, or possibly even orange.”
Despite risks that I fully expect to devolve into a roughly -65% loss in the S&P 500 over the completion of the current market cycle, it’s absolutely critical to distinguish the long-term effects of valuation from the shorter-term effects speculative pressure. Historically-reliable valuation measures are remarkably useful in projecting long-term and full-cycle market outcomes, but the behavior of the market over shorter segments of the market cycle is driven by the psychological inclination of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion. The most useful measure we’ve found of that psychological inclination is the uniformity or divergence of market internals across a broad range of individual stocks, industries, sectors, and security types (including debt securities of varying creditworthiness). When investors are inclined to speculate, they tend to be indiscriminate about it.
In the recent advancing half-cycle, the speculation intentionally provoked by zero-interest rate policy forced us to elevate the priority of market internals to a far greater degree than was required during the tech and mortgage bubbles. It was necessary to prioritize the behavior of market internals even over extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” features of market action. Those syndromes were effective in other cycles across history, but in the advancing half-cycle since 2009, our bearish response to those syndromes proved to be our Achilles Heel. The process of adaptation was very incremental, and therefore painful in the face of persistent speculation. We’ve adapted our investment discipline so that without exception, a negative market outlook can be established only in periods when our measures of market internals have also deteriorated. A neutral outlook is fine when conditions are sufficiently unfavorable, but establishing a negative outlook requires deterioration and dispersion in market internals.
Faced with extreme valuations, the first impulse of investors should not be to try to justify those valuation extremes, but to recognize the impact of their own speculative behavior in producing and sustaining those extremes. It then becomes essential to monitor market conditions for the hostile combination of extreme valuations and deteriorating market internals. At present, we observe that combination, but would still characterize the deterioration in market internals as “early,” in the sense that it’s permissive of abrupt market losses, but not severe enough to infer a clear shift from speculation to risk-aversion among investors.