Irrational Exuberance part two


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Irrational Exuberance part two

Amplification Mechanisms and
As if the structural factors listed above were not enough, Shiller argues that amplification mechanisms intensified the effects. First, there was a change in investor attitudes toward stocks. By the late 1990s stocks were considered a long-term investment that could not go wrong. Jeremy Siegel first published Stocks for the Long Run in 1994. Subsequent editions have appeared in 1998, 2002 and 2007. Stocks indeed performed well from 1995 until 2000, when the S&P 500 peaked around 1550. The S&P 500 then went on a 10-year stretch of underperformance. In fact, the S&P 500 was trading below its 2000 level in early 2011. This means 11 years of negative returns for buy-and-hold investors that bought in 2000.

Second, as inferred above, Shiller asserts that public attention to the stock market hit new levels in the 1990s. This heightened awareness made more money available for stocks. The media fed this infatuation with increased coverage. Dinner party conversations invariably turned to the stock market. Stock tips and advice were also readily shared among acquaintances.

Third, the consistent rise in stock prices provided a feedback loop that kept public attention on stocks. As the media reported the rise in the stock market, new money found its way into the stock market and pushed prices even higher. Higher prices led to more news and more news led to more investment money. A feedback loop evolved where price increases were feeding more price increases. Shiller calls these mechanisms naturally occurring Ponzi schemes because they feed on the perception of prior success.

Cultural Factors
The news media and new era thinking are among the cultural factors cited by Shiller. Yes, the media seems to keep popping up in the book - maybe that is why technical analysts only look at price charts!

The speculative bubble was clearly aided and abetted by the news media. Newspapers, television, radio and Internet media compete for public attention. Sensational stories with sound bites are more likely to attract attention than drab analysis with numbers and facts. Despite an inattention to detail, the news media was always there with specific reasons for a stock market move. The media always found the perfect excuse or news event to justify the move - after the fact. It is kind of like a solution in search of a problem.

Shiller notes that news of price changes is influential on investor behavior. In his survey after the crash on October 19th, 1987, Shiller listed all the recent news events that seemed relevant and asked respondents to rate the stories. News of the October 14th price decline was also included in this list. At the time, this was the single largest one-day point decline in the Dow Industrials. Surprisingly, the stories relating to the past price declines were deemed the most significant news events. In Shiller's words:

Thus it appears that the stock market crash had substantially to do with a psychological feedback loop among the general investing public from price declines to selling and thus to further price declines, along the lines of a negative bubble. The crash apparently had nothing particularly to do with any news story other than that of the crash itself, but rather with theories about other investors' reasons for selling and about their psychology.

New era economic thinking was also cited by Shiller as a cultural factor that contributed to the stock market bubble. New era thinking is not new. Stock market advances in the late 1800s, 1920s and 1960s were also facilitated by new era thinking. At the 1901 peak, new era thinking centered around railroads, big industrial trusts and the age of optimism. The roaring 20s were marked by the electrical age for big cities and the widening use of autos. The 1960s were punctuated by a baby boom, the proliferation of television and low inflation. And finally, the 1990s saw the Internet boom, low inflation, the new economy and the alleged end of the business cycle.

Psychological Factors
Shiller asserts that there is a human tendency towards “overconfidence in one's beliefs,” and that people often rely on intuition when making investment decisions. The decision process is not based on carefully considered facts backed by numbers and evidence. Instead, investors make investment decisions based on the opinion of others, stemming from the need to conform. Investors make decisions based on “good stories” or stories that seem logical. Because people get their information from the same sources, there is little or no evidence of independent behavior. Instead, individuals getting the same information react the same way to produce a herd mentality.

Conclusion and Critiques
Shiller identified several credible factors that influenced investment decisions during the bubble years. Many of these factors exist today and his analysis provides food for thought when considering behavioral finance. Not all factors or influences are listed here. Shiller offers more factors and detailed evidence in the book. After examining efficient markets, random walks, bubbles and investor attitudes, Shiller also offers several remedies to contain “speculative volatility in a free society”.

Behavioral finance can help us understand what is happening, but understanding may not help with making money in the stock market. While the first edition coincided with the stock market peak in 2000, the stock market rose another 30% after the second edition was published in February 2005. There is an argument to be made for historical valuations, but markets can remain irrational a lot longer than traders can remain solvent. In other words, one would have left a lot of money on the table by selling in early 2005 or one would have gone broke shorting stocks in early 2005. To his credit, Shiller does provide evidence of past mispricing in the stock market. It can and does happen.

Furthermore, who is to say how much a stock is actually worth? The value of any asset is only what someone is willing to pay for it. Valuations are set every day as stocks change hands on Wall Street. Just as prices trend, valuations also trend from overvaluation to undervaluation. Sometimes these trends get extreme on both sides. Stocks were severely overvalued in early 2000 and severely undervalued in March 2009. It would appear that some sort of timing mechanism is needed to avoid the big declines and participate in the big advances. Hmm … sounds like technical analysis!

Next up, click here to read our investment psychology article on the 11 most common cognitive biases that affect us both in daily life and when investing in the financial markets.
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