That’s especially true for the professionals on Wall Street, who’ve come in for more criticism than anyone in recent months, and understandably so. It was Wall Street, after all, that chose not only to feed the housing bubble, but ultimately to bet so heavily on it as to put the entire financial system at risk. How did the experts who are paid to obsess about the direction of the market—allegedly the most financially sophisticated among us—get it so badly wrong? The answer is that the typical financial professional is a lot more like our hypothetical home buyer than anyone on Wall Street would care to admit. Given the intersection of experience, uncertainty, and self-interest within the finance industry, it should be no surprise that Wall Street blew it—or that it will do so again.
Take experience (or the lack thereof). Boom-and-bust cycles like the one we just went through take a long time to complete. The really big busts, in fact, the ones that affect the whole market and economy, are usually separated by more than 30 years—think 1929, 1966, and 2000. (Why did the housing bubble follow the tech bubble so closely? Because both were really just parts of a larger credit bubble, which had been building since the late 1980s. That bubble didn’t deflate after the 2000 crash, in part thanks to Greenspan’s attempts to save the economy.) By the time the next Great Bubble rolls around, a lot of us will be as dead and gone as Richard Whitney, Jesse Livermore, Charles Mitchell, and the other giants of the 1929 crash. (Never heard of them? Exactly.)
Since Wall Street replenishes itself with a new crop of fresh faces every year—many of the professionals at the elite firms either flame out or retire by age 40—most of the industry doesn’t usually have experience with both booms and busts. In the 1990s, I and thousands of young Wall Street analysts and investors like me hadn’t seen anything but a 15-year bull market. The only market shocks that we knew much about—the 1987 crash, say, or Mexico’s 1994 financial crisis—had immediately been followed by strong recoveries (and exhortations to “buy the dip”).
By 1996, when Greenspan made his famous “irrational exuberance” remark, the stock market’s valuation was nearing its peak from prior bull markets, making some veteran investors nervous. Over the next few years, however, despite confident predictions of doom, stocks just kept going up. And eventually, inevitably, this led to assertions that no peak was in sight, much less a crash—you see, it was “different this time.”
Those are said to be the most expensive words in the English language, by the way: it’s different this time. You can’t have a bubble without good explanations for why it’s different this time. If everyone knew that this time wasn’t different, the market would stop going up. But the future is always uncertain—and amid uncertainty, all sorts of faith-based theories can flourish, even on Wall Street.
In the 1920s, the “differences” were said to be the miraculous new technologies (phones, cars, planes) that would speed the economy, as well as Prohibition, which was supposed to produce an ultra-efficient, ultra-responsible workforce. (Don’t laugh: one of the most respected economists of the era, Irving Fisher of Yale University, believed that one.) In the tech bubble of the 1990s, the differences were low interest rates, low inflation, a government budget surplus, the Internet revolution, and a Federal Reserve chairman apparently so divinely talented that he had made the business cycle obsolete. In the housing bubble, they were low interest rates, population growth, new mortgage products, a new ownership society, and, of course, the fact that “they aren’t making any more land.”
In hindsight, it’s obvious that all these differences were bogus (they’ve never made any more land—except in Dubai, which now has its own problems). At the time, however, with prices going up every day, things sure seemed different.
In fairness to the thousands of experts who’ve snookered themselves throughout the years, a complicating factor is always at work: the ever-present possibility that it really might have been different. Everything is obvious only after the crash.
Consider, for instance, the late 1950s, when a tried-and-true “sell signal” started flashing on Wall Street. For the first time in years, stock prices had risen so high that the dividend yield on stocks had fallen below the coupon yield on bonds. To anyone who had been around for a while, this seemed ridiculous: stocks are riskier than bonds, so a rational buyer must be paid more to own them. Wise, experienced investors sold their stocks and waited for this obvious mispricing to correct itself. They’re still waiting.
Why? Because that time, it was different. There were increasing concerns about inflation, which erodes the value of fixed bond-interest payments. Stocks offer more protection against inflation, so their value relative to bonds had increased. By the time the prudent folks who sold their stocks figured this out, however, they’d missed out on many years of a raging bull market.
When I was on Wall Street, the embryonic Internet sector was different, of course—at least to those of us who were used to buying staid, steady stocks that went up 10 percent in a good year. Most Internet companies didn’t have earnings, and some of them barely had revenue. But the performance of some of their stocks was spectacular.
In 1997, I recommended that my clients buy stock in a company called Yahoo; the stock finished the year up more than 500 percent. The next year, I put a $400-a-share price target on a controversial “online bookseller” called Amazon, worth about $240 a share at the time; within a month, the stock blasted through $400 en route to $600. You don’t have to make too many calls like these before people start listening to you; I soon had a global audience keenly interested in whatever I said.
One of the things I said frequently, especially after my Amazon prediction, was that the tech sector’s stock behavior sure looked like a bubble. At the end of 1998, in fact, I published a report called “Surviving (and Profiting From) Bubble.com,” in which I listed similarities between the dot-com phenomenon and previous boom-and-bust cycles in biotech, personal computers, and other sectors. But I recommended that my clients own a few high-quality Internet stocks anyway—because of the ways in which I thought the Internet was different. I won’t spell out all those ways, but I will say that they sounded less stupid then than they do now.
The bottom line is that resisting the siren call of a boom is much easier when you have already been obliterated by one. In the late 1990s, as stocks kept roaring higher, it got easier and easier to believe that something really was different. So, in early 2000, weeks before the bubble burst, I put a lot of money where my mouth was. Two years later, I had lost the equivalent of six high-end college educations.
Of course, as Eliot Spitzer and others would later observe—and as was crystal clear to most Wall Street executives at the time—being bullish in a bull market is undeniably good for business. When the market is rising, no one wants to work with a bear.