On Bubbles

Charlie Bilello from Pension Partners pointed out that the CAPE is now over 30. His piece is balanced and well written as always but it won’t prevent others from using the data to once again proclaim that the market is expensive and that we’re in a bubble, etc. So far so good and I might even agree. But if the implication is that there is impending doom then I have to beg to differ.

Many writers, the eminent Larry Swedroe among them, have argued that the historical context of the P/E ratio has evolved. I find no reason to doubt them, so let’s take the shorter term relative movement as an indication of multiple expansion or contraction. In 1921-29, the CAPE ratio went from 5 to 30, for a gain of 6X. In 1982-2000, the CAPE ratio went from about 7 to 44, another 6X. The CAPE low of 2009 was about 12.5. Now I’m not about to forecast a CAPE of 75 (although within the realm of possibility, cf. Japan 1990), but surely an increase of mere 2.5X can’t be the end of this bubble if it can be called such? If this is indeed the coming-home-to-roost of all the QE by all the central banks since the great financial crisis then we will have much, much further to go. To say otherwise is to say “this time is different”.

I have been saying on this blog since last November that we’re entering a generational bull market. Currently the model is seeing a consolidation low in July, flat in August, but a truly maniacal phase for 12-18 months thereafter.

Speaking of bubbles, the Collaborative Fund recently published The Reasonable Formation of Unreasonable Things. Here are a couple of gems:

The majority of your lifetime investment returns will be determined by decisions that take place during a small minority of the time.

Bubbles are not anomalies or mistakes. They are an unavoidable feature of markets where investors with different goals compete on the same field. they would occur even if everyone was a financial saint.

It’s a hallmark of thought-provocativeness that the readers may draw different conclusions from the ones the author intended. It reads to me that one of the article’s main purpose was to warn long-term investors of the dangers of irrational pricing during bubbles. Pointing out the difference in goals and time frames was a beautiful rebuttal to EMH which sometimes is used to justify “buy at any price”. But to me the greater take away was the importance of the bubbles — rational, inevitable, and the driver of long term returns that those smooth, monotonically uptrending curves from a fantasy land called Excel would have you overlook.

Two recent articles by Jason Zweig (here and here), speaks to the difficulty of riding a bubble: specifically, a money manager Samuel Lee and his experience with Ethereum. Except in this case, the final chapter, or more than likely the second act, has not yet been written. Jason Zweig is too good a writer and has too much understanding to express an opinion other than saying it’s really hard. So here I would like to give myself some pointers that I hope to follow:

  • Participate — showing up is half the battle, especially when others are calling it a bubble.
  • Don’t be greedy. Position size control is paramount. Set a volatility limit as well as a position limit.
  • Do not envy those in earlier with a lower cost basis, nor those in later with a larger position.
  • Take profits, often. It’s impossible to catch the exact bottom or top. Play with the house’s money.
  • Do not take positions to justify a point.
  • The majority of the portfolio should be in an allocation that one would have in the absence of bubbles.

The last point is an import one for me. My speculative positions are benchmarked against cash, not the 60/40 much less 100% stocks. Why would it be otherwise if the bubble is expected to be short lived? Taking profits, even partially, forces one to re-evaluate the whole position.

We live in interesting times. I see three bubbles in progress or developing that require very different treatments. In cryptocurrencies, I have taken a position and am simply content to sell a little bit as prices rise. In PMs I have a 15% baseline allocation but trade around the cycles. Exposure can be increased by being in silver, miners, 3x ETFs and options while maintaining the same nominal allocation. In stocks and Nadaq in particular, I’m willing to increase the overall allocation along with highly leveraged option positions. These are in contrast to their neutral allocations of 0%, 15% and 45% (for all equities), respectively.

The next year or two should be very interesting.