Telling a Bubble from a Bull Market - Outside View by Chirag Mehta

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Telling a Bubble from a Bull Market
Nov 8, 2010

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

When you read you begin with A,B,C

When you sing you begin with Do Re Mi

And if you're thinking of investing in gold (at present) you begin with - Bubbles and Bull Markets
Well, like the Sopranos that hit high notes, both Bull markets and Bubbles are known for their upward climbs. And if you consider the number of previous bull markets that have ended up as bubbles, the mistaken-identity-crisis that these two phenomena share is quite understandable - the primary reason why many investors misinterpret almost all long term rising markets (bull markets) as a recipe for asset bubbles. How far can a bull market develop before it becomes a bubble? Well, there is no easy answer to that. In fact it is quite difficult to identify an asset bubble before it materializes, sometimes even after it has already formed.

Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman, was once quoted saying that, there was not much that central bankers could do about asset- price bubbles because it was too hard to spot them until after they had burst.

What really makes a Bull market? How different are Bull markets from Bubbles? Are they different at all? defines a Bull Market as:

A financial market of a certain group of securities in which prices are rising or are expected to rise. Bull markets are characterized by optimism, investor confidence and expectations that strong results will continue.
A bull market is composed of an extended period of time during which the price of the asset / instruments continues to register "higher highs". However, the price increases in a bull market are underpinned by strong fundamentals. As these well-grounded fundamentals get stronger by the day, prices continue moving upwards, in tandem with the fundamental story.

An interesting explanation on the Internet explains a Bubble as:

An extended period of extreme overvaluation. Bubbles can occur in almost all assets like stock markets, real estate, commodities and precious metals. There have even been bubbles in the flower market, the most famous example being the Dutch Tulip Mania of the seventeenth century.
A point worth noting here is that bubbles are formed when excessive speculation enters a market. Ever heard of the greater fool theory? - In a bubble market, speculators focus on the resale value of the asset rather than on its intrinsic value; irrationally high prices don't seem to matter - what only matters is that the asset can be sold for an even more irrational price at a later date. Bubbles often end with steep declines, where most of the speculative gains are quickly wiped out.

The most important distinction between a bull market and a bubble is the deviation in an asset's intrinsic value. Intrinsic value (here) refers to the price supported by an asset's own fundamental factors i.e. prices ruling in tandem with its fair price. Simple, you say? Not really. Calculating the fair value of an asset is easier said than done. Hence, since the quantification of the fair value is difficult, it makes sense to refer to the strength of the fundamental factors that support the price increases.

The phases of a Bubble

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue from Hofstra University, USA, has recently published a study on the different phases in a bubble. Though the situation for each bubble would obviously be different, there are a lot of similarities that come to light when analyzing bubbles over a period of 500 years; which is what Dr. Rodrigue has attempted through his research.

Reading Dr. Jean Paul Rodrigue's Chart

Stealth Phase - "Smart money" gets in often quietly and cautiously. Prices gradually increase, but often go completely unnoticed by the general population. Larger positions are established as smart money investors start to understand the well-grounded fundamentals and realize that this asset is likely to experience significant future valuations.

Awareness Phase - Realizing the momentum many investors start bringing in additional money in and pushing prices higher. There can be a short lived sell off phase taking place as few investors cash in their first profits (there could also be several sell off phases each beginning at a higher level than the previous one). In the later stages of this phase the media starts to notice.

Mania Phase - Price rise catches everyone's attention and the public jumps in for this "investment opportunity of a lifetime". Floods of money come in creating even greater expectations and pushing prices to stratospheric levels. Fairly unnoticed from the general public caught in this new frenzy the smart money as well as many institutional investors are quietly pulling out and selling their assets to eager future bag holders. The market gradually becomes more exuberant as "paper fortunes" are made and greed sets in. At some point statements are made about entirely new fundamentals implying that a "permanent high plateau" has been reached to justify future price increases the bubble is about to collapse.

Blow-off Phase - A trigger arrives and everyone roughly at the same time realizes that the situation has changed. Confidence and expectations encounter a paradigm shift. Many try to unload their asses to a greater fool but there are few takers; everyone now expects further price declines. Prices plummet at a rate much faster than the one that inflated the bubble. Many over-leveraged bag holders go bankrupt, triggering additional waves of sales. The general public at this point considers this sector as "the worst possible investment one can ever make". This is the time when the smart money starts acquiring assets at bargain bottom prices.


Using Dr.Rodrigue's study, where would you place gold - Is it a true bull market or is it forming into a bubble? And, if it is advancing into a bubble, then at which stage are we currently in?

Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the fact that in the light of other monetary units getting devalued, gold remains the only currency whose supply is highly constrained. And thus, at current prices, gold at the extreme only looks fairly valued. It is nowhere close to discounting the adverse effects of current policy making which continue to mount fiscal deficits and "incompatible-with-sound-money obligations" - social security, pensions, promised 'free' medical care, deposit insurance, payments to bondholders, etc.

Chart: The Future is more worrisome

Sure, we recognize the possibility of a bull market transforming into a bubble. So, in the rarest of rare likelihoods that gold is pursuing the path of turning into a bubble, using Dr.Rodrigue's chart, we could be staring at the "Awareness Stage".

Earlier, we noticed some smart money enter the gold market, creating big positions and using much of the declines to increase allocations. Sounds a lot like the Stealth Stage, doesn't it?

Currently, trends observed reveal a lot of institutional participation coming in - central banks are adding gold to their reserves, while institutional participants like pension funds, wealth funds are considering allocations to gold.

The interest in gold doesn't yet qualify for the mania stage, since public participation hasn't been much to speak about, and nor has the media gone gung-ho about gold being the only asset one should invest in. And contrary to bubble behaviour, the increase in price has been a gradual and steady appreciation over a number of years. At the most, we just have seen some smart retail money allocate to gold considering its strong fundamentals.

If at all, this bull market is following course of being a bubble then we still are way off from reaching the new paradigm. Gold investors can continue to sing as strong fundamentals suggest that we are in a bull market which is currently nowhere close to being a bubble.

Chirag Mehta is Fund Manager, Commodities for Quantum Mutual Fund and manages the Quantum Gold Fund ETF and the Quantum Gold Savings Fund among others.


The views expressed in this Article are the personal views of the author Chirag Mehta and not views of Quantum Asset Management Company Private Limited(AMC), Quantum Trustee Company Private Limited (Trustee) and Quantum Mutual Fund (Fund). The AMC, Trustee and the Fund may or may not have the same view and DO not endorse this view.

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3 Responses to "Telling a Bubble from a Bull Market"


Nov 17, 2010

before discussing bubble in gold, the diff in equity & GOLD is 2 b understood.every 5-7 yrs equity corrects by more than 50-60%. has gold corrected by this proportion, at this interval ? pl sum1 throw light on this.



Nov 11, 2010

I feel gold moved from year 1998-2010 ..from USD400 to USD1400. Doesnt it covered stealth to bubble phase. Ok, if we add it with inflation then ofcourse other commodities like oil also to be considered in similar manner. rather the consumption of the oil has increased vis-a-vis gold during same period. In fact god does not have any utilisation as such, may be total stock in world remained same; on and under ground.
Having said this, gold (or any commodity for that matter) is purchased in USD. Naturally one is abundance or easily available then other's value in clear terms which is called as cost has to go up. ..its like sea-saw .. if USD 600B coming fresh in market then cost of the commodities has to go up. .. all this in common man's thinking.


The Golden Bear

Nov 9, 2010

You need to consider how to adapt the Rodrigue's bubble model to commodities before dismissing the possibility of a gold bubble. For instance, crude oil had a bubble in recent years that hit the "mania" phase without a lot of main-street speculation, because it's understandably difficult for the average Joe to buy crude oil (Note: when crude oil plunged it still lost 2/3 of its value). The same thing may happen with gold.

A public "mania phase" for a gold bubble would likely include people rushing to sell their scrap gold, buy gold coins, and buy inordinate amounts of gold ETFs. It seems we're well on our way -- already at least in the "enthusiasm" or "greed" stage of Rodrigue's bubble.

If you truly believe that there was 4x or 5x appreciation of gold in the "Stealth" and "Awareness" phase, maybe that's just a sign that we've already reached "Delusion" (the top of the bubble).


Golden Bear

PS If you don't post this comment, I'd welcome a personal reply to set me straight!

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