What’s a “Bubble?”

The word “bubble” has been thrown around a great deal with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) at 16,000, the S&P 500 at 1800, and the Nasdaq Comp above 4000.  The term “bubble” is a scare word that makes people think of a repeat of the Tech Crash of 2000 or the real estate bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008.

Cluifford Asness, whose firm manages $80 billion has a pet peeve and one of them is the loose use of the term “bubble.”

“The word “bubble,” even if you are not an efficient market fan (if you are, it should never be uttered outside the tub), is very overused. I stake out a middle ground between pure efficient markets, where the word is verboten, and the common overuse of the word that is my peeve. Whether a particular instance is a bubble will never be objective; we will always have disagreement ex ante and even ex post. But to have content, the term bubble should indicate a price that no reasonable future outcome can justify. I believe that tech stocks in early 2000 fit this description. I don’t think there were assumptions — short of them owning the GDP of the Earth — that justified their valuations. However, in the wake of 1999-2000 and 2007-20008, and with the prevalence of the use of the word “bubble” to describe these two instances, we have dumbed the word down and now use it too much. An asset or a security is often declared to be in a bubble when it is more accurate to describe it as “expensive” or possessing a “lower than normal expected return.” The descriptions “lower than normal expected return” and “bubble” are not the same thing.

Bloomberg columnist Barry Ritholtz comments:

“It would only take a small marginal improvement in the economy, or a small uptick in hiring, or heaven help us, even a modest increase in wages to increase revenues and drive profits significantly higher,”he current market valuations do not, in my opinion, have the characteristics of a “bubble.” “

Whether stocks, bonds or commodities are fairly valued, undervalued or overvalued will become apparent over time.   In the meantime, unless you are being paid to opine, it’s best to realize that fortune-telling is not the way to manage your portfolio.  Creating an all-weather portfolio with the asset allocation that will allow you to face any reasonable future is the best strategy.


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