I constantly see headlines, blog posts, manager commentaries and articles discussing bubbles. Most, if not all of these articles are written as “buyer beware” pieces, that warn about the risks of buying into certain markets.
The problem is that bubbles aren't easily defined and it seems as though everyone has a different definition. Some folks talk about valuations, current versus historical averages. The problem is, that approach is only applicable to equity markets and nothing else.
I’m not a big fan of using valuation metrics but that’s a conversation for another day. Other people look at the magnitude and duration of a particular price move to indicate at what point a market is considered to be in a bubble. This type of definition is very subjective and hard to quantify.
My favorite absurd criteria for a market bubble is that 'irrational exuberance' will be present. Maybe irrational exuberance is like porn and you know it when you see it. If not, how do you quantify irrational exuberance?
Even if the market agreed on a set definitions for what makes a bubble, it would tell you nothing about when the bubble would pop or how long it would take that market to work off the excesses.
My take on asset bubbles is completely different.
Do you remember the fun that could be had with a container of bubble solution and the bubble wand? If you don’t you’re lying to yourself.
What was fun about blowing bubbles? It was two things specifically and they were both equally enjoyable. First, it was fun to see who could make the biggest bubble. Second, it was fun to run around popping all of the bubbles that had been blown.
Asset bubbles are no different. I love to see how big a particular market’s bubble can get and I also love to see that bubble pop. Both provide excellent opportunities for profits.
At the end of the day, profits are what matter and the rest is just conversation. I always laugh a bit when these bubble articles start coming out en masse. I’m inclined to go towards a market and get more interested in it when people start to say it’s in a bubble. That doesn’t mean that I get involved right away but I actively seek an opportunity to get involved with a trade idea that's skewed in my favor.
Let’s do a little case study. What if I gave you the opportunity to buy the NASDAQ 100 (QQQ) on December 31, 1999? Would you take that trade?
Most people say “No way. Why would you want to buy an asset that was clearly frothy just months before the bubble burst?” I can think of one reason -- profits.
Profits From The Tech First Bubble
Even if you sensed that things were a bit ahead of themselves, you had no way of knowing that the peak would come on March 24, 2000. And if we’ve learned nothing else in the last decade, just because a market has gone up or down X% doesn’t mean it can’t move a lot more in that same direction over a period of months or years despite people calling it a bubble.
Here is a breakdown of the opportunity set that QQQ provided during the bubble bursting year of 2000:
12/31/1999 – 3/24/2000 = 32%
3/24/2000 – 5/26/2000 = -40%
5/26/2000 – 9/1/ 2000 = 43%
9/1/2000 – 12/31/2000 = -44%
These advances and declines lasted anywhere from 2-3 months and provided a total opportunity set of 159%. I’m not saying that you could have caught the top and bottom of all 4 of these moves in real time. I’m simply pointing out that you could have traded the bursting of one of the all-time biggest asset bubbles in US history for profit.
Even if you were a buy and hold investor at that time. You could have bought QQQ on December 31, 1999 and had a 13% gain on September 1 or been break even as of October 1, 2000. You could have bought a market that had already gained 200% in proceeding two years, made 32% in the first 3 months, made 13% in the first 9 months (after the bubble popped) and still been break even on the position in the first 10 months.
The point here is don’t fear bubbles and don’t avoid markets altogether because some people are calling them bubbles. Bubbles don’t pop in a day. The bigger the bubble, the longer it takes for the markets to work off the excess.
The Financial Crisis in 2008 was no different. QQQ declined 20% in the first 3 months of the year, gained 23% over the next 3 months and then declined 47% over the next 5 months before rallying by 12% the final month of the year. These are massive price movements that occurred over a minimum of 3 months, not 1 day.
Again, I’m not implying that market timing would have made you rich. I’m simply pointing out that no matter how you were positioned heading into The Crisis, you had ample opportunities to get out or reposition your portfolio before things got bloody.
To bring this conversation full circle, let’s discuss the current QQQ. Ithas rallied an impressive 365% since the March 2009 lows (the S&P 500, SPY, is up 250% over that same time period).
Is 365% over a 6-year time period a bubble? I don’t know and I don’t really care. I got long QQQ this past week for a tactical trade.
I take these types of trades as a way to profit from short-term sentiment shifts or quantitative developments that may go against a market’s longer-term fundamental gravity.
QQQ has had a nice 15% rally since the middle of February, along with a number of other risk markets across the globe. I went long QQQ because it broke out to new 2016 highs, held for 3 consecutive days and is now consolidating nicely just above $105.50. This trade has a very clean risk level around $103 and upside to the $112-$115 area. So the risk-to-reward is a minimum of 3-to-1.
I certainly could turn out to be wrong and the Qs could roll over, breach $103 and start to fall back towards the 2016 lows. And if that is the case, I’ll have ample time and opportunity to correct my trading mistake and re-position myself, if appropriate.
Based on the way I sized the position, the worst case is I lose 30 bps, the best case scenario is that I add 100 bps of profit to the bottom line. Not a bad profit potential for a trade that I don’t anticipate holding for longer than 10-15 trading days.
The point is, I’m not going to avoid a market just because it's up 100% more than the S&P 500 over the same time frame and many people may believe that it's Bubbalicious.
Bottom line: Your process should be the same after a 365% rise as it is after a 47% decline. For tactical trades, orient yourself towards trades that offer clear levels of risk, appropriate reward given that level of risk and won’t tie your capital up for very long before you find out if you are right or wrong.