Thursday, October 29, 2009

Observations on Bubbles

Bubbles are only obvious after the fact. I thought there was a housing bubble, but I also thought we had a bond bubble too when 30-year Treasury bonds were near 5%. It could be that the bond bubble is still ongoing and will pop soon, or next year, or not at all. Gold is another case. I don't think there is a bubble in gold, the heightened attention paid to it reflects the unease people feel towards the ballooning balance sheets of central banks and the unsupportable budget deficits of certain nations. Yet there are others who think gold is pretty much worthless outside its value for industrial purposes. Is gold in a bubble right now? Too hard to say. Should gold drop to $450 then it becomes obvious and we can look back at the gold bubble and blast the idiots who couldn't see something so obvious. Stock market P/E has been higher than average and in bubble mode since the early 90's, yet even after this meltdown we're way higher.

What I think we need to focus on are the types of events or bubbles that can bring down the financial system. This has to do with leverage and allowable risks to our banks. The dot com bubble hurt, but wasn't as damaging as this crisis because banks didn't stand a chance of going under, they were not exposed enough to the bubble to cause a financial system meltdown. However banks are tied to real estate in a much great fashion, here is where a bubble can do great harm.

In the future, we have to make sure leveraged firms don't have their eggs in one basket and that not all firms that are leveraged are exposed to the same risks. Should all banks start lending out cheap money for margin accounts tied to gold, then the price of gold would have a great impact and could cause a crisis like this one. It's the banks and the leverage that is the problem. If we can eliminate the risk of many banks going under at the same time, then we've solved the problem, crises will no longer be as severe as this one.

Large banks should have higher capital requirements, and lower leverage allowances. Smaller banks will have looser requirements, but the regulator needs to see if they are all betting on the same thing and if that poses a danger to the entire system should the bet turn out badly.

Almost forgot, bubbles are almost always the result of easy credit. Bubbles can't form without credit, in every case I can think of, credit was the hidden accomplice, perhaps even the mastermind that causes bubbles. No credit, not enough "fuel" for a bubble to develop. I think we're seeing a lot more bubbles recently because the FED just will not allow credit to contract, they keep on trying to reinflate the bubble, even now there are calls for more loans and credit to be made available. I think the FED's monetary policy is severely flawed, the default rate in normal times is too low and they refuse to tighten until its too late due to pressure to allow good economic times to continue (the economy is always referred to as bad, no matter what, even when we had below 5% unemployment in order to create pressure for more rate cuts). The FED has to break the cycle or we'll have another bubble shortly, the aftermath of reflating the housing bubble.

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