Bubbles, Money and the VIX

By Doug Noland

Credit Bubble Bulletin: Bubbles, Money and the VIX

February 10 – Financial Times (John Authers): “The Importance of Bubbles That Did Not Burst:”

“Is there really such a thing as a market bubble? I feel almost heretical answering this question. I and most readers have lived through two decades that were dominated by two vast investment bubbles and the attempt to deal with their consequences when they burst. Getting into definitions is beside the point. As US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said to define pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’ And there is no point in arguing that the dotcom bubble that came to a head in 2000, or the credit bubble that burst seven years later, were not bubbles. I know a bubble when I see one, and they were bubbles. For those of my generation, spotting bubbles before they get too big, and thwarting them, seems to be vital for regulators and investors alike.”

“But in a great new compendium on financial history, several writers make the same points. The number of bubbles in history is very small. That makes it hard to draw any valid inferences from them. Further, definition is a real problem, and not just one for linguistic nitpickers. History’s acknowledged bubbles all have one critical factor in common; they burst. But that gives us a one-sided view. We need to look at those bubbles that did not burst and the crises that did not happen.”

We’re at the stage where there’s impassioned pushback against the Bubble Thesis. To most, it’s long been totally discredited. Even those sympathetic to Bubble analysis now question why the current backdrop cannot be sustained. “The number of bubbles in history is very small.” Most booms did not burst. So why then must the current boom end in crisis – when most don’t? It has become fashionable for writers to try to convince us that such an extraordinary backdrop need not end extraordinarily.

There’s great confusion that I wish could be clarified. I define Bubbles generally as “a self-reinforcing but inevitably unsustainable inflation.” There are numerous types of Bubbles. Most definitions and research (as was the case with the analysis cited by the FT’s Authers) focus specifically on asset prices (“an extreme acceleration in share prices. In one version, [Yale’s Will Goetzmann] required them to double in a year — which excluded the dotcom bubble and the Great Crash of 1929. To keep them in, he also tried a softer version where stocks doubled in three years”).

Behind every consequential Bubble is an inflation in underlying Credit. My analysis focuses on the nature of the monetary expansion responsible for the asset inflation. I’m less concerned with P/E ratios and valuation than I am Credit expansions and the nature of risk intermediation. Earnings are important, but more critical to the analysis is the degree to which they (and “fundamentals” more generally) are being inflated by monetary factors – and whether such inflation is sustainable or susceptible.

Credit Dynamics are key. Mr. Authers refers to the “dot.com” and “Credit” Bubbles. Yet the nineties Bubble was fueled by extraordinary expansions in GSE Credit, securitizations and corporate debt. Internet stocks inflated spectacularly, but in the grand scheme of the Bubble were rather inconsequential. The Bubble faltered initially in 2000 with the sharp reversal in technology stocks. Less embedded in memory is the near breakdown in corporate Credit back in 2002. The resulting aggressive Fed-induced reflation then spurred a doubling of mortgage Credit in just over six years. The transformation of risky Credit into perceived safe money-like securities (“Wall Street Alchemy”) was integral to both “tech” and “mortgage finance” Bubble periods. The fact that dot.com price inflation and overvaluation greatly exceeded that of home prices is meaningless.

When I initially titled my weekly writings the “Credit Bubble Bulletin” back in 1999, I anticipated that “Bubble” would remain in the title only on a short-term basis. And indeed, I thought the Bubble had burst in 2000/2001 and then again in 2008. But in both instances Credit Dynamics and resurgent monetary inflation made it clear to me that a more powerful Bubble had reemerged. Whether one prefers to date the beginning of the Great Credit Bubble 1992, 1987 or even 1971, it’s been inflating now for quite a long time. Too be sure, the expansion of government Credit over the past eight years puts mortgage Credit and other excesses to shame. I would argue that price distortions and risk misperceptions similarly overshadow those from the mortgage finance Bubble period.

Of course, the vast majority have become convinced that the boom is sustainable. Indeed, analysis these days is eerily reminiscent of “permanent plateau” jubilation from 1929. The bullish perspective sees an improving global economy and a powerful pro-growth agenda unfolding in the U.S. Worries about debt, China and such matters have turned stale. A contrary argument focuses on Credit Dynamics and the unsustainability of today’s unique monetary and market backdrops.

Over the years, I’ve made the point that a Bubble financed by junk bonds would not create a systemic issue. There are, after all, limits to the demand for high-risk debt. Long before such a boom could go to prolonged and dangerous extremes (imparting deep structural maladjustment), investors would shy away from increasingly unattractive Credit issued in clear excess. The boom would lose its monetary fuel.

I define contemporary “money” as a financial claim perceived as a safe and liquid store of (nominal) value. Money these days is Credit, but a special type of Credit. Unlike junk bonds, “money” enjoys essentially insatiable demand. As such, a boom fueled by “money” is a quite different animal than our above junk bond example. I would posit that a prolonged inflation of perceived safe “money” by its nature ensures far-reaching risk distortions. For one, Bubbles fueled by “money” appear especially sustainable, while a prolonged inflation of “money” virtually ensures a destabilizing crisis of confidence. Governments throughout history have abused money. Contemporary central bankers took it to a whole new level.

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