Tags: Rob Williams | stock | bubble | Nasdaq

What If There Were a Stock Bubble and Nobody Cared?

By    |   Friday, 01 May 2015 11:10 AM

The Nasdaq’s climb to a record high invites comparisons with the dot-com bubble that peaked in 2000 and explanations for why “this time is different.”

The biggest difference is that most people don’t seem to care in the same way that they did in the frenzy of the late 1990s, when the world was undergoing a technological transformation unlike anything seen since the Industrial Revolution.

The commercialization of the Internet spawned a revolution in the way people worked, shopped, communicated and consumed media. It was the beginning of the end for enterprises that distributed media products in a physical format, such as compact disk or video cassette.

It also captured the imagination of mom-and-pop investors as stories abounded about people becoming millionaires overnight after dot-com companies started issuing stock.

Terms such as “initial public offering” or its abbreviation “IPO” entered the popular lexicon, even if people didn’t understand the mechanics of high finance or computer technology.

The Gold Rush was on as people tuned in to cable channel CNBC to hear about stocks reaching new records. Even well-established Microsoft jumped 15-fold in five years as the software company redirected its resources to beating Netscape in the browser wars.

The Nasdaq Composite Index is now breaking the record close of 5,048.62, although if the index were adjusted for inflation, the all-time high would be more than 6,500. But it’s a fallacy to argue that stocks are now cheap compared with past bubbles that ended up collapsing.

Even with the new highs, the same sense of dot-com hysteria isn’t there. People aren’t tuning into CNBC — its ratings have plunged in the past 15 years. Not that I’m gloating.
All financial media are coping with shrinking or fragmenting audiences. And CNBC is reportedly very profitable with its reach among an upscale audience.

Some analysts say this bull market is built on real money-making businesses with solid fundamentals, such as the hugely profitable Apple. My concern with that argument is that the Nasdaq index is standing on the narrow shoulders of Apple, Amazon, Biogen Idec, Gilead and Netflix, for example.

I’m also concerned that the records are the direct result of record-setting stimulus by the world’s central banks and “financial engineering” among publicly traded companies. The machinations include taking on record levels of debt at low interest rates to use for share buybacks and dividends.

Repurchases and dividends are estimated to reach as much as $1 trillion this year, according to a recent report by Goldman Sachs. That kind of money effectively replaces the Federal Reserve’s last quantitative easing program. Its bond purchases pumped as much as $85 billion a month into the economy.

When the next asset bubble bursts, I'd like to think that most Americans won't suffer major financial setbacks because most of them don't own stocks. I realize that's wishful thinking.

Most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, according to recent surveys, and don't have the disposable income to throw into the market. They are up to their necks in debt and won't be able to boost their spending without stronger wage gains.

Unfortunately, they would not be immune to a collapse in asset values that typically accompanies a recession. And for that reason, people should care that the Nasdaq may be forming another bubble.

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The Nasdaq's climb to a record high invites comparisons with the dot-com bubble that peaked in 2000 and explanations for why "this time is different." The biggest difference is that most people don't seem to care in the same way that they did in the frenzy of the late 1990s.
Rob Williams, stock, bubble, Nasdaq
Friday, 01 May 2015 11:10 AM
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