Drivers of Financial Bubbles: Addicts and Enablers

I recently ran across an interesting article by stock analyst Gary J. Gordon, The Bubble Addicts Are Here To Stay: A Bubble Investment Strategy. This article may be behind a paywall.  I will summarize it here. Direct citations are in italics.


Gordon starts by recapping four recent financial bubbles:

The commercial real estate bubble of the mid-1980s

The internet stock craze of the late 1990s (with the highest price/earnings valuations ever – – e.g., a startup called Netbank possessed nothing but a website, yet was valued at ten times book value; and went bankrupt a few years later)

The mid-00s housing bubble.

The 2020/2021 COVID bubble:  “The trifecta of a ‘disruptive business model’ stock bubble, SPACs and crypto. You know how this story is ending.”

Gordon then presents an explanation of why humans keep doing financial bubbles, despite the experiences of the past. He suggests that there are both bubble addicts, who have a need to chase bubbles and therefore create them, and bubble enablers who are only too happy to make money off the addicts.


The greedy. Some of us just think we deserve more. I think of an acquaintance who said he was approached to invest with Bernie Madoff, who famously promised steady 10% returns. My friend turned down the offer because he required 15% returns.

Pension funds. This $30 trillion pool of investment dollars targets about a 7% return in order to meet future pension obligations. If pension fund managers can’t consistently earn at least 7%, they have to go to their sponsor – a state government, a corporate CEO, etc. – and ask for more money, or for pension benefits to be cut. And probably lose their job in the process.

Back in the day, bonds were the mainstay pension fund investment. But over the past 20 years, bond yields haven’t gotten the pensions anywhere close to 7%. So increasingly they have invested in stocks and alternative investments like private equity, as this chart shows:

Source: Pew Institute

And venture capital fundraising, in large part from pension funds, has soared since the pandemic…

How many great new ideas are out there for venture capitalists to invest in? [Obviously, not an unlimited number]. So their investments are by necessity getting riskier. But if the pension funds back away from the growing risk, they have to admit they can’t earn that 7%. Then bad things happen, to retirees and to pension plan sponsors and then to pension fund managers. So pension fund managers are pretty much addicted to chasing bubbles.

The relatively poor. The “absolutely poor” have income below defined poverty levels. The “relatively poor” feel that they should be doing better, because their friends are, or their parents did, or because the Kardashians are, or whatever. Their current income and prospects just aren’t getting them to the lifestyle they aspire to. [Gordon provides example of folks chasing meme stocks and crypto, and getting burned]. …But can the relatively poor just walk away from chasing bubbles? Not without giving up dreams of better lifestyles.


Bubbles don’t just spontaneously occur; they require skilled hands to shape them. And those skilled hands profit handsomely from their creations. Who are these feeders?

Private equity and venture fund managers. They typically earn a 2% management fee plus 20% of profits earned. That adds up fast. A $10 billion venture fund could easily generate $400 million a year in income, spread among a pretty small group of people. VC News lists 14 venture capitalists who are billionaires.

SPAC sponsors. [ A SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) is a shell corporations which raises money through stock offerings, for the purpose of going out and buying some existing company. SPAC sponsors make a bundle, and so are motivated to promote them. SPACs proliferated in 2020-2021, and for a while pumped money into acquiring various small-medium “growth” companies. But now it is clear that there are not a lot of great underpriced companies out there for SPACs to buy, so SPACs are fizzling]

Wall Street earns fees from (A) raising funds for private equity, venture capital and SPACs, (B) buying and selling companies, (C) trading bubble stocks, crypto, etc., and (D) other stuff I’m not thinking of right now.

The Federal Reserve. Part of the Federal Reserve’s mandate is to reduce unemployment. Lowering interest rates increases stock values, which creates wealth, which drives the “wealth effect”. The wealth effect is the estimate that households increase their spending by about 3% as their wealth increases. More spending increases GDP, which reduces unemployment, which makes the Fed happy, and politicians happy with the Fed.

In my view, the wealth effect is why the supposed economic geniuses at the Fed never figure out that bubbles are occurring, so they never take steps to minimize them.

Social media and CNBC certainly benefit from more viewers while bubbles are blowing up [i.e., inflating].


Gordon sees us still in recovery from the recent bubble of “disruptor companies” and crypto, and so the market may have more than the usual choppiness in the next year. So he advises being nimble to trade in and out, and not mindlessly commit to being either long or short. “Value stocks are probably the best near-term bet, even if they can’t offer the adrenaline jolt offered by bubble stocks.”

Tough Year for Investing (with one little-known, totally safe exception)

There’s still a few more days left in the year, but at this point it is safe to say, unfortunately, that it was a very bad year for investing. This Google chart shows most of the bad news. Note: nothing in this post is investment advice about the future, just a summary of the past.

The S&P 500, the typical benchmark for US equities, was down 20%. Bonds, usually a safe haven, were down over 14% as measured by the Vanguard Total Bond fund (more on bonds later).

Gold, the traditional hedge against bad times, was flat. I guess that’s not so bad. But gold is also traditionally considered a hedge against inflation, and inflation will probably end up being somewhere in the range of 5-7% this year (depending on your preferred index). So in real terms, even gold was down. And the supposed new hedge against fiat currency? Bitcoin is down 65% (crypto has other potential redeeming features, but inflation hedging was supposed to be one of them).

Did anything do well? Oil was basically flat too, starting and ending the year in the $75-80 range. Of course, oil companies did very well this year — Exxon is up over 70%, since prices were elevated for much of the year. But picking individual stocks is always fraught with danger. For example, you might think electric car companies would have done well in the past year, given the high gas prices for much of the year, yet Tesla was down over 70% (I won’t speculate here about why, but it may have other idiosyncratic explanations).

There is one boring, sleeper investment that would have earned you a decent return. Not a massive return, but one that will likely be slightly higher than the rate of price inflation (once we have complete inflation data). And the investment is totally safe, and by April you would have known exactly your rate of return for the full year: 8.5%.

That investment? Series I Savings Bonds, issued by the US Treasury. Series I Bonds pay a fixed rate of return for 6 months, which you know at the time you buy it. The interest rate rests every 6 months based on the rate of CPI inflation. If you invested in these bonds in January 2022, you would have earned 3.56% for 6 months, and then you would have earned 4.81% for the second half of 2022. And this was all known as early as April 2022 (though not officially confirmed by the Treasury until May).

While a lot of people were talking about the possibility of high inflation at the beginning of 2022, I don’t recall many people advising anyone to buy these bonds. It’s not a super well known investment, and not super exciting. Plus each investor is capped at $10,000 per year in most cases, so you couldn’t have moved all your money into I Bonds. Another restriction is that you lose some of the interest if you pull the money out before 5 years.

Still, this was one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for most broad investment types.

High Yield Investing, 2: Types of Funds; Loan Funds; Preferred Stocks

Types of Funds: Exchange-Traded, Open End, and Closed End

Some investors like to pick individual stocks, while others would rather own funds that own many stocks.  For bonds, investors usually own funds of bonds rather than taking possession of individual bonds.

A straightforward type of fund is the exchange-traded fund (ETF). This holds a basket of securities such as stocks or bonds, and its price is constantly updated to reflect the price of the underlying securities. You can trade an ETF throughout trading hours, just like a stock. If you simply hold it, there will be no taxable capital gains events. Many ETFs passively track some index (e.g. the S&P 500 index of large company stocks) and have low management fees.

An open end mutual fund also trades close to the value of the baskets of securities it holds, but not as tightly as with an ETF. You can place an order to buy or sell an open end fund throughout the day, but it will only actually trade at the end of the day, when the share price of the fund is updated to the most recent value of the net asset value. A quirk of open end funds is that buying and selling by other customers can generate capital gains for the fund, which get distributed to all shareholders. Thus, even if you are simply holding fund shares without selling any, you may still get credited with, and taxed on, capital gains. Also, if a lot of shareholders sell their shares at the bottom of a big dip in prices, the fund must sell the underlying securities at a low price to redeem those shares. This hurts the overall value of the fund, even for customers who held on to their shares through the panic.

Some open end mutual funds offer skilled active management which may meet your needs better than an index fund. For instance, the actively-managed Vanguard VWEHX fund seems to give a better risk/reward balance than the indexed junk bond funds.

Closed-end funds (CEFs) are more complicated. A closed-end fund has typically has a fixed number of shares outstanding. When you sell your shares, the fund does not sell securities to redeem the shares. Rather, you sell to someone else in the market who is willing to buy them from you. Thus, the fund is protected from having to sell stocks or bonds at low prices. The fund’s share price is determined by what other people are currently willing to pay for it, not by the value of its holdings. Shares typically trade at some discount or premium to the net asset value (NAV). The astute investor can take advantage of temporary fluctuations in share prices, in order to buy the underlying assets at a discount and then sell them at a premium. CEFs are typically actively managed, and employ a wider range of investment strategies than open-end funds or ETFs do. CEFs can raise extra money for buying interest-yielding securities by borrowing money. This leverage enhances returns when market conditions are favorable, but can also enhance losses.

Bank Loan Funds

One type of debt security is a loan. Banks can make loans to businesses, with various conditions (“covenants”) associated with the loans. Banks can then sell these loans out into the general investment market.

Most commercial loans are floating-rate, so the interest received by the loan holder will increase if the general short-term commercial interest rate increases. Thus, the loan holder is largely protected against inflation. Loans typically rank higher than bonds in order of payment in case the company goes bankrupt, and some loans are secured by liens on particular company-owned assets like vehicles or oil wells. For these reasons, in the event of bankruptcy, the recovery on loans is higher (around 70%) than for bonds (average around 40%).

Various funds are available which hold baskets of these bank loans, also called senior loans or leveraged loans. One of the largest loan funds is the PowerShares Senior Loan ETF (BKLN), which currently yields about 4.5%. Most of its loans are rated BB and B, i.e. just below investment grade.   There are also closed end funds which hold bank loans, which yield nearly twice as much as the plain vanilla BKLN ETF, by virtue of employing leverage, selling at a discount to the actual asset value of the fund, and expertly selecting higher yielding loans.  For instance,  the Invesco Senior Income Trust (VVR), which I hold,  currently yields 8% , which is enough to keep up with inflation.      

High-Dividend Common Stocks

Most “stocks” you read about are so-called  common stocks. Most company common stocks are valued for their potential to grow in share price or to steadily keep increasing the size of their dividend. The average dividend yield for the S&P 500 stocks is about 1.6%, which is lower than the current yield of the (risk-free) 2-year Treasury bond.

There are some regular (C-corporation) stocks which are not expected to grow much, but which pay relatively high, stable dividends. These include some telecommunication companies like AT&T (T; 6.5%) and Verizon (VZ; 5.9%), electric utilities like Southern (SO; 3.5%) and Duke (DUK; 3.7%), and petroleum companies like ExxonMobil (XOM; 3.6%). Investors might want to buy and hold some of these individual stocks, since these are among the highest yielding, high quality stocks. Broader funds which focus on large high-quality, high-yielding stocks tend to have lower average yields than the stocks mentioned above. For instance the Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (VHYAX) currently yields only about 3.2 % .  

Preferred Stocks

Companies, including many banks, issue preferred stocks, which behave more like bonds. They  often yield more than either bonds or common stock. Like bonds, most preferreds have a fixed yield; some convert from fixed to floating rate after a certain number of years. Unlike bonds, most preferreds have no fixed redemption date. Fixed-rate preferreds are vulnerable to a large loss in value if interest rates rise, since the shareholder is stuck essentially forever with the original, low rate. On the other hand, if interest rates drop, a company typically can, after a few years, redeem (“call”) the preferred for its face value (typically $25) and then issue a new, lower-yielding preferred stock.

Preferred shares sit above common stock but below bonds in the capital structure. Companies have the option of suspending payment of the dividends on preferred stock if financial trouble strikes. However, a company is typically not permitted to pay dividends on the common stock if it does not pay all the dividends on the preferred stock.

The largest preferred ETF is iShares US Preferred Stock (PFF). It yields about 5.8%, but holds mainly fixed-rate shares. The PowerShares Variable Rate Preferred ETF (VRP; 5.9%  yield) holds variable or floating rate shares, which helps insulate investors from the effects of interest rate raises. The First Trust Intermediate Duration Preferred & Income Fund (FPF) is a closed end fund with more than half its holdings as floating rate. Due to use of leverage and selling at a discount, the fund yield is a juicy 7.9%.

Happy investing…

High Yield Investments, 1: Some Benefits of High Yield Stocks and Funds

A Case for High-Yield Investments

The data I have seen indicates that if you don’t need to draw down your investment for twenty years or more, you may do well to put it all in stock funds and just leave it alone. For reasons discussed here  the average investor will likely do better to buy an index fund like the S&P 500 rather than trying to pick individual stocks. The long term average return (including reinvested dividends) in the U.S. stock market has been about 10 %  before adjusting for the effects of inflation. (All my remarks here pertain to U.S. investments; hopefully some aspects may be applicable to other countries).

However, particularly as you age, financial advisors typically counsel investors to allocate some portion of their portfolio to more-stable fixed-income securities that generate cash to spend and keep you from having to sell stocks during a market downturn. Historically, long-term investment grade bonds have been used to provide steady cash, and to serve as an asset which often went up if stock went down. Thus, a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio was considered prudent. That model has been less useful in recent years, since bond yields have been so low, and since long-term bonds sometimes fall along with stocks, e.g. if long-term interest rates rise.

Another driver now for allocating some savings into non-stock investments is that after the large run-up in stocks last few years, which has far exceeded gains in actual earnings, the market may well muddle along flatter in the coming decade. In regular stock investing, you are banking primarily on stock price appreciation – you are counting on someone else paying you (much) more for your shares some years hence than you paid for them. But what if the “greater fools” don’t materialize to buy your shares?

Also, the inflation genie has been let out of the bottle, and it may be tough to get inflation back under say 4%; investment grade bonds are yielding appreciably less than inflation these days, so you are losing money to buy regular bonds.

Finally, if your stock is cranking out say 8% cash dividends, and you are holding it for those dividends rather than for price appreciation, when the market crashes (and this particular stock goes down in price, along with everything), you can be blithe and unruffled. In fact, you can be mildly pleased if the price goes down since, if you are reinvesting the dividends, you can now buy more shares at the lower price. Trust me, this psychological benefit is important.

Some High Yielding Alternative Investments

In this blog over the coming weeks/months we will identify several classes of securities which generate stock-like returns (around 7-10 % returns, if the dividends are continually reinvested) via dividend distributions rather than through share price appreciation. These securities often have short-term volatility similar to stocks, so they should be treated in the portfolio as partly as stock-substitutes rather than as substitutes for stable high-quality bonds. However, the better classes of high yield investments maintain their share prices over a long (e.g. 5-year) period, similar to bonds, but with much higher yields.

We will discuss High-yield (“junk”) bonds , senior bank loans, preferred stocks, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), Business Development Companies, Master Limited Partnerships,   and selling options (put/calls) on stocks.  

I’ll close today with three examples of these high yield securities, which I have happily held for many years. They yield 8-9%, and their share prices have held relatively steady over the past five years:

Cohen&Steers Total Return Realty Fund (RFI). Current yield: 8.0 %

Ares Capital   (ARCC)   Current yield:  8.1%

Eaton Vance Tax-Managed Buy-Write Opportunities Fund (ETV). Current yield: 8.8%                    

(Charts from Seeking Alpha)

Though the Market Is a Winner, Most Stocks Are Losers

The U.S. “stock market” is represented by various collections of stocks, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (30 stocks), the NASDAQ Composite (securities listed on the NASDAQ; weighted towards information technology), and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index. The S&P 500 is an index of the largest 500 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, weighted by capitalization. The version of the S&P usually cited just takes into account stock prices. History shows that, over a reasonably long-time frame, the U.S. stock market rises. Here is a chart, using a logarithmic axis, of the S&P from January, 1950 to February, 2016. It shows a rise in value by a factor of about 65 between 1950 and 2016.

S&P 500 daily closing values from January 3, 1950 to February 19, 2016

Below is a chart of S&P values from 1980 to 2021 on a linear scale, which compresses the earlier data and magnifies more recent variations. This shows the Covid-related dip in early 2020, which was followed by a meteoric rise as Fed and federal money flooded the financial system:

Source: Yahoo Finance

A lab technician I knew in my company in the 1990s took every bit of savings he had (about $50,000) and plowed it all into the stock of America Online (AOL). This was when the internet was just taking off, and AOL was a leading company in that field. My friend held on while his investment doubled, then had the conviction to hang on until it doubled again. He then cashed out with around $200,000, quit his job, got an MBA in finance, and ended up managing money on Wall Street.

With these sorts of success stories, and the (so far) reliable performance of the stock market, how hard can it be for the average small investor to pick a winning basket of stocks? Surprisingly hard, it turns out.

A study of the returns of U.S. stocks from 1926 to 2015 was published by Hendrik Bessembinder, a business professor at Arizona State University. A draft copy is here . He worked with total returns (stock price plus dividends). He found that the rise of the S&P is entirely due to huge gains by a tiny subset of stocks. The average stock actually loses money over both short and long time periods. In statistical terms, this is an extremely skewed data set; the mean return is greater than the median. There is a sort of Darwinian selection that occurs in a market index like the S&P 500. The companies that are doing well tend to get more represented in the index as their stock prices rises relative to other companies, while the relative weighting of losers automatically diminishes.

This asymmetry between winners and losers is partly a result of the following math: If you invest $1000 in a company that then tanks, the most you can lose is $1000. But if that company is one of the rare firms that really takes off, you could make many times your initial investment. If you had put $1000 into Microsoft (MSFT) in 1986, your shares would now be worth nearly  five million dollars.

According to Bessembinder’s study, half of the U.S. stock market wealth creation had come from a mere 0.33% of the listed companies. The top five companies (ExxonMobil, Apple, GE, Microsoft, and IBM, at that point) accounted for a full 10% of the market gain. Each of these companies had created half a trillion dollars or more for their shareholders. ( A similar list of the top five or ten value-creating companies drawn up in 2021 would have a different set of names, obviously, but a similar principal has held in recent years – a huge portion of the rise in “stocks” in the past five years has been due to a handful of internet superstars, the FAANGM stocks).

Out of some 26,000 listed companies, 86 of them (0.33%) provided 50% of the aggregate wealth creation, and the top 983 companies (4%) accounted for the full 100%. That means the other 25,000 companies netted out to zero return. Some gave positive returns, while most were net losers.

The average stock which you might pick by throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal listings lost money 52% of the time in any given month, and 51% of the time over the life of the company. The lifetime of the average company was only seven years, with only 10% of companies lasting more than 27 years.

This helps explain why actively managed stock funds, where diligent experts analyze and select some subset of stocks in an attempt to beat the market, typically underperform the broad market indices. (The fees charged by these funds also drags down their performance relative to the market indices). This also explains why about half the small-cap stocks I have bought over the years in my little recreational brokerage account have lost money. I had thought I was particularly inept at stock-picking. Turns out I was just about average.

Avoiding Intertemporal Idiosyncratic Risk

Hopefully by this time we all know about index funds. The idea is that by investing in a large, diversified portfolio, one can enjoy the average return across many assets and avoid their individual risk. Because assets are imperfectly correlated, they don’t always go up and down at the same time or in the same magnitude. The result is that one can avoid idiosyncratic risk – the risk that is specific to individual assets. It’s almost like a free lunch. A major caveat is that there is no way to diversify away the systemic risk – the risk that is common across all assets in the portfolio.

We can avoid the idiosyncratic risk among assets. But, we can also avoid idiosyncratic risk among times. Each moment has its own specific risks that are peculiar to it. Many people think of investing as a matter of timing the market. However, people who try to time the market are actively adopting the specific risks that are associated with the instant of their transaction. This idea seems obvious now that I’m writing it down. But I had a real-world investing experience that– though embarrassing in hindsight – taught me a heuristic for avoiding overconfidence and also drilled into my head the idea of diversifying across time.

I invested a lot into my preferred index fund this past year. I’d get a chunk of money, then I’d turn around and plow it into the fund. What with the Covid rebound, it was an exciting time. I started paying more attention to the fund’s performance, identifying patterns in variance and the magnitude of the irregularly timed and larger changes. In short, by paying attention and looking for patterns, I was fooling myself into believing that I understood the behavior of the fund price.

And it’s *so* embarrassing in hindsight. I’d see the value rise by $10 and then subsequently fall to a net increase of $5. I noticed it happening several times. I acted on it. I transferred funds to my broker, then waited for the seemingly regular decline. Cha-ching! Man, those premium returns felt good. Success!

Silly me. I thought that I understood something. I got another chunk of change that was destined for investing. I saw the $10 rise of my favorite fund and I placed a limit order, ensuring that I’d be ready when the $5 fall arrived. And I waited. A couple weeks passed. “NBD, cycles are irregular”, I told myself. A month passed. And like a guy waiting at the wrong bus stop, my bus never arrived. All the while, the fund price was ultimately going up. I was wrong about the behavior of the fund. Not only did I fail to enjoy the premium of the extra $5 per share. I also missed what turned out to be a $10 per share gain that I would have had if I had simply thrown in my money in the first place, inattentive to the fund’s performance.


I hate making bad decisions. I can live with myself when I make the right decision and it doesn’t pan out. But if I set myself up for failure through my own discretion, then it hurts me at a deep level. What was my error? Overconfidence is the answer. But why did it hurt me?

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