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My journey through Bubbleville – Pt 1

Mark LaMonica, CFA  |  19 Apr 2021Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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COMMENTARY | My job heading up Morningstar’s retail business in Australia entails knowing what everyday investors are thinking and feeling. That of course means speaking to our customers, but it also means keeping track of online investor forums and following financial influencers (“finfluencers”). These digital hubs present as guides for the herds of pandemic investors who have charged into the market in what could be the dying days of a decade long bull market*.

This is a three-part series that explores good-intentioned ignoramuses, self-interested manipulators and downright charlatans that have invaded investing markets. In the first part of our journey I search for signs of crazy investor behaviour. The second part explores the pay to play world of Instagram finfluencers and what happens when the teachers are only a couple pages ahead of the students. And finally, I look at the long-term impact of getting started in investing during a bubble.  

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m more Grantham than Portnoy so perhaps this an exercise in schadenfreude for a market drop that is yet to materialise. Then again, anyone can write this article after a crash. Here goes nothing.

--

Lonely bear in a bull market

“The single most dependable feature of the late stages of the great bubbles of history has been really crazy investor behaviour, especially on the part of individuals. For the first 10 years of this bull market, which is the longest in history, we lacked such wild speculation. But now we have it. In record amounts.” (Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of US fund manager CMO, January 2021)

The posts come flying onto popular 54,000-strong Facebook group 'ASX Stock Tips Group' in response to a piece of news that is equivalent to the invention of salted caramel to a dessert-a-holic. In this case, the salty component is Zip (ASX: ZIP), while the sweetness is the news that the lay-by company is thinking of rolling out stock and crypto-currency trading on its app.

I try and process this news in a dumbfounded stupor as my screen is filled with rocket emojis. For the uninitiated, a rocket emoji means the stock is going to the moon. What could go wrong. If this marriage of trading and commerce is consummated, legions of millennials and Gen Z “cashflow management” customers can purchase Gamestop shares while ordering jeans they can’t afford. All of this can be done with the smug satisfaction that credit cards are predatory and antiquated, and stonks never go down. And no, I did not spell that wrong – that is how the citizens of Bubbleville spell stocks. It isn’t worth explaining.

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Should I point out that Zip makes more money off their customers than a credit card company does? Do I tell tales of past downturns? Who cares. Zip is in a trading halt and is up 17 per cent for the day.

I can’t stop thinking about ex-Citigroup chief executive Chuck Prince. He infamously said "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance.” He was referring to leveraged lending and he said it in 2007 as he and Citi prepared to waltz off a cliff. The music is playing again and everyone is dancing. Only this time the dances are choregraphed vids for TikTok that give you stock tips.

Going through the 'ASX Stock Tips Group' is strangely cathartic. There are the BNPL posts – lots of BNPL posts. There are mining companies about to strike the motherload, and penny share prices that require another 10 years of a bull market to make it to gold coin territory. I’m urged to respect the trend and I’m told that technical analysis is the way to riches. I am directed to watch the YouTube videos of a 16-year-old stock picker. Gamestop invigorates the Facebook group. The press is describing it as a revolution by retail investors, but to Bubbleville it is obvious what's happening. 'Pump and dump' is the phrase of the day and share after share is being proposed as a way to man the proverbial barricades. 

I take screenshot after screenshot. I send them to Shani who co-hosts Morningstar's Investing Compass podcast with me. I send them to Emma who runs our editorial team. They’ve long stopped responding. I talk about posts when I’m out at the pub. Now I receive texts from my friend James every morning that the US market is up. He sends screenshots of his friend's crypto account balance. I’m known as a curmudgeonly bear. I don’t bother pointing out that 70 per cent of my net worth is in the stock market. I’m having drinks at my birthday gathering and James and his wife Nat give me a beautifully wrapped present. I unwarp to discover a mug with my photoshopped head on a market commentator yelling stonks. I pour my beer into the mug and raise a toast to Bubbleville.

Stonks

The market has the audacity to go down one day. I’m told to buy the dip. I think about other dips. I think of the 75 per cent “dip” the Nasdaq had after the .com bubble. I wonder if anyone will make an emoji that shows a rocket crashing. I posted once. It was a mistake. There was an actual investing question about building a diversified portfolio by someone who clearly stumbled into the wrong group. I posted a Morningstar podcast episode in an attempt to actually answer his question. A digital sleuth uncovered the fact that I worked for Morningstar and announced this news like he discovered who was on the grassy knoll. I am digitally shamed for promoting something other than my own stock holdings and slink away with my tail between my legs. 

I spend Australia day with my wife and friends Matt and JC at the beach. JC’s dad is trading options on SPACs and making a killing. While lugging an esky back to the car my wife asks me why I don’t trade options on SPACs. I prepare for a rant that would end around ANZAC day but realise nobody cares. Being a bear is lonely. Except that I’m not a bear. I turned off my dividend reinvestment plan. My savings are going into cash instead of into the market. I’m not exactly shorting the market. In Bubbleville, any negativity is punished.

Sometimes ETF investors post on the ASX Stock Tips board. Anticipating juvenile challenges to his manhood, a recent poster starts with a bit of a disclaimer. ETFs are conservative he claims but they still represent a safe way to set and forget and still get an average of over 10 per cent a year in returns. He acknowledges it may sound slow but reminds the board that it beats bank interest rates. Investing in ETFs is of course slow when we contrast it with the story I recently read about the newbie trader in the US that managed to make between 10 and 50 trades a day during 2020 (and found himself with a $800k tax bill).

I’m thinking of all this as I present the new market data feature for our website that defaults to 1-year returns to promote good investor behaviour. If crazy behaviour is the final sign before a bubble bursts than all investors should look out below. If not, I hope it doesn’t hurt too much when I tumble from my high horse. 

I want to hear your own stories from Bubbleville. Email me at mark.lamonica1@morningstar.com

*Yes I know what happened in February and March of last year but let's be serious, I’ve had lunches that lasted longer than that bear market.

Stay tuned for part two, where our lonely bear explores the pay to play world of Instagram finfluencers.

MORE IN THIS SERIES

My journey through Bubbleville:

 

is a product manager, individual investor, Australia.

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