What do tulips, nickel mining in Australia, South Seas trading, Beanie Babies and cryptocurrencies have in common? The answer is that they have all been the subject of speculative bubbles. In the first four cases the bubble burst. A question currently being asked is whether it will happen to bitcoin.
Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an unknown person, or people, using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a digital currency in the form of a line of computer code. Bitcoins are like ‘electronic cash’ which can be held or used for transactions, with holdings and transactions heavily encrypted for security – hence it is a form of ‘crytocurrency’. People can buy and sell bitcoins for normal currencies as well as using them for transactions. People’s holdings are held in electronic ‘wallets’ and can be accessed on their computers or phones via the Internet. Transfers of bitcoins from one person or organisation to another are recorded in a public electronic ledger in the form of a ‘blockchain‘.
The supply of bitcoins is not controlled by central banks; rather, it is determined by a process known as ‘mining’. This involves individuals or groups solving complex and time-consuming mathematical problems and being rewarded with a new block of bitcoins.
The supply of bitcoins is currently growing at around 150 per hour and the current supply is around ₿16.7 million. However, the number of new bitcoins in a block is halved for every 210,000 blocks. This means that the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins is slowing – the number generated being halved roughly every four years. The supply will eventually reach a maximum of ₿21 million, probably sometime in the next century, but around 99% will have been mined by around 2032.
The bitcoin bubble
The price of bitcoins has soared in recent months and especially in the past two. On 4 October, the price of a bitcoin was $4226; by 7 December it was nearly four times higher, at $16,858 – a rise of 399% in just nine weeks. Many people have claimed that this is a bubble, which will soon burst. Already there have been severe fluctuations. By December 10, for example, the price had fallen at one point to $13,152 – a fall of nearly 22% in just two days – only to recover to over $15,500 within a few hours.
So what determines the price of bitcoin? The simple answer is very straightforward – it’s determined by demand and supply. But what has been happening to demand and supply and why? And what will happen in the near and more distant future?
As we have seen, the supply is limited by the process of mining, which allows a relatively stable, but declining, increase. The explanation of the recent price rise and what will happen in the future lies on the demand side. Increasing numbers of people have been buying bitcoin, not because they want to use it for transactions, whether legitimate or illegal over the dark web, but because they want to invest in bitcoin. In other words, they want to hold bitcoin as an asset which is increasing in value. These people are known as ‘hodlers’ – a deliberate misspelling of ‘holders’.
But this speculation is of the destabilising form. The more prices have risen, the more people have bought bitcoin, thus pushing the price up further. This is a classic bubble, whereby the price does not reflect an underlying value, but rather the exuberance of buyers.
The problem with bubbles is that they will burst, but just when is virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. If the price of bitcoins falls, what will happen next depends on how the fall is interpreted. It could be interpreted as a temporary fall, caused by some people cashing in to take advantage of the higher prices. At the same time, other people, believing that it is only a temporary fall, will rush to buy, snapping up bitcoins at the temporary low price. This ‘stabilising speculation’ will move the price back up again.
However, the fall in price may be seen as the bubble bursting, with even bigger falls ahead. In this case, people will rush to sell before it falls further, thereby pushing the price even lower. This destabilising speculation will amplify the fall in prices.
But even if the bubble does burst, people may believe that another bubble will then occur and, once they think the bottom has been reached, will thus start buying again and there will be a second speculative rise in the price.
The crash could be very short-lived. This happened with the second biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. On 21 June this year, the price at the beginning of the day was $360. It then began to fall during the say. Once its price reached $315, it then collapsed by 96% to $13 with massive selling, much of it automatic with computers programmed to sell when the price falls by more than a certain amount. But then, on the same day, it rebounded. Within minutes it had bounced back and was trading at $337 at the end of the day. It is now trading at around $450 – up from around $300 four weeks ago.
Whether the bubble in bitcoin has more to inflate, when it will burst, and when it will rebound and by how much, depends on people’s expectations. But what we are looking at here is people’s expectations of what other people are likely to do – in other words, of other people’s expectations, which in turn depend on their expectations of other people’s expectations. This situation is known as a Keynesian Beauty Contest (see the blog, A stock market beauty contest of the machines). Perhaps we need a crystal ball.
Is Bitcoin a bubble? Here’s what two bubble experts told us Trade Online, Timothy B. Lee (8/12/17)
Bitcoin and tulipmania have a lot more in common than you might think Business Insider, Seth Archer (8/12/17)
Bitcoin ends dramatic week with 20% slump followed by recovery The Guardian, Jill Treanor (8/12/17)
Putting a price on Bitcoin The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (8/12/17)
Is Bitcoin a Bubble Waiting to Pop? InvestorPlace, Matt McCall (8/12/17)
Bitcoin bubble follows classic pattern of investment mania Financial Times, John Authers (8/12/17)
The Bitcoin bubble – how we know it will burst The Conversation, Larisa Yarovaya and Brian Lucey (6/12/17)
Bitcoin isn’t a currency – and unless it becomes one it could be worthless The Conversation, Vili Lehdonvirta (6/12/17)
How Bitcoin futures trading could burst the cryptocurrency’s bubble The Conversation, Nafis Alam (13/12/17)
Op-ed: Bitcoin Is Not a Bubble; It’s in an S-Curve and It’s Just Getting Started Bitcoin Magazine, Brandon Green (8/12/17)
Bitcoin vs history’s biggest bubbles: They never end well CNN Money, Daniel Shane (8/12/17)
The 10 Most Ridiculous Price Bubbles In History Business Insider, Vincent Fernando and Anika Anand (11/10/10)
After bitcoin’s wild week, traders brace for futures launch Reuters, Saqib Iqbal Ahmed (10/12/17)
Cryptocurrencies current market prices
Bitcoin live exchange prices and volumes ($) CryptoCompare
All cryptocurrencies – live market prices Yahoo Finance
- To what extent does Bitcoin meet the functions of money?
- Why is bitcoin unsuitable for normal transactions?
- To what extent is bitcoin like gold as a means of holding wealth?
- How would you advise someone thinking of buying bitcoin today? Explain why.
- Does a rapid rise in the price of an asset always indicate a bubble? Explain
- To what extent is the current rise in the price of bitcoin similar to that of the tulip, Poseidon and Beanie Baby bubbles?
- If bitcoin is appreciating relative to the dollar and other currencies, does this mean that the price of goods and services valued in bitcoin are falling? Explain.
- Explain and comment on the following sentence from the first Conversation article: “Like any asset, Bitcoin has some fundamental value, even if only a hope value, or a value arising from scarcity.”
- How might the introduction of futures trading in bitcoin impact on its price and the volatility of price swings?
- Explain and assess the argument that the price trend of bitcoin is more likely to be an S curve rather than a roller coaster
Thirty years ago, on Monday 19 October 1987, stock markets around the world tumbled. The day has been dubbed ‘Black Monday’. Wall Street fell by 22% – its biggest ever one-day fall. The FTSE 100 fell by 10.8% and by a further 12.2% the next day.
The crash caught most people totally by surprise and has never been fully explained. The most likely cause was an excessive rise in the previous three years, when share prices more than doubled. This was combined with the lack of ‘circuit breakers’, which today would prevent excessive selling, and a ‘herd’ effect as people rushed to get out of shares before they fell any further, creating a massive wave of destabilising speculation.
Within a few weeks, share prices started rising again and within three years shares were once again trading at levels before Black Monday.
Looking back to the events of 30 years ago, the question many fund managers and others are asking is whether global stock markets are in for another dramatic downward correction. But there is no consensus of opinion about the answer.
Those predicting a downward correction – possibly dramatic – point to the fact that stock markets, apart from a dip in mid-2016, have experienced several years of growth, with yields now similar to those in 1987. Price/earnings ratios, at around 18, are high relative to historical averages.
What is more, the huge increases in money supply from quantitative easing, which helped to inflate share prices, are coming to an end. The USA ceased its programme three years ago and the ECB is considering winding down its programme.
Also, once a downward correction starts, destabilising speculation is likely to kick in, with people selling shares before they go any lower. This could be significantly aggravated by the rise of electronic markets with computerised high-frequency trading.
However, people predicting that there will be little or no downward correction, and even a continuing bull market, point to differences between now and 1987. First, the alternatives to shares look much less attractive than then. Bond yields and interest rates in banks (at close to zero), unlike in 1987, are much lower than the dividend yields on shares (at around 4%). Second, there are circuit breakers in stock markets that suspend dealing in cases of large falls.
But even if there is a downward correction, it will probably be relatively short-lived, with the upward trend in share prices continuing over the long term. If you look at the chart above, you can see this trend, but you can also see periods of falling share prices in the late 1990s/early 2000s and in the financial crisis of 2008–9. Looking back to 1987, it seems like a mere blip from the perspective of 30 years – but it certainly didn’t at the time.
Three decades since Black Monday – are markets on the verge of another tumble? The Telegraph, Lucy Burton (19/10/17)
Black Monday: 30 years on from the 1987 crash Citywire, Michelle McGagh (19/10/17)
30 Years Ago: Lessons From the 1987 Market Crash U.S.News, Debbie Carlson (12/10/17)
Black Monday: Can a 1987-style stock market crash happen again? USA Today, Adam Shell (19/10/17)
Black Monday anniversary: How the 2017 stock market compares with 1987 MarketWatch, William Watts (19/10/17)
30 years after Black Monday, could stock market crash again? MarketWatch, William Watts (19/10/17)
The Crash of ’87, From the Wall Street Players Who Lived It Bloomberg, Richard Dewey (19/10/17)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bull markets’ and ‘bear markets’.
- Share prices are determined by demand and supply. Identify the various demand- and supply-side factors that have led to the current long bull-market run.
- What caused the Black Monday crash in 1987?
- For what reasons may global stock markets soon (a) experience, (b) not experience a downward correction?
- Distinguish between stabilising speculation and destabilising speculation on stock markets.
- What determines when a downward correction on stock markets bottoms out?
- Explain how stock market circuit breakers work. Can they prevent a fundamental correction?
- Does the rise in computerised trading make a stock market crash more or less likely?
Both the financial and goods markets are heavily influenced by sentiment. And such sentiment tends to be self-reinforcing. If consumers and investors are pessimistic, they will not spend and not invest. The economy declines and this further worsens sentiment and further discourages consumption and investment. Banks become less willing to lend and stock markets fall. The falling stock markets discourage people from buying shares and so share prices fall further. The despondency becomes irrational and greatly exaggerates economic fundamentals.
This same irrationality applies in a boom. Here it becomes irrational exuberance. A boom encourages confidence and stimulates consumer spending and investment. This further stimulates the boom via the multiplier and accelerator and further inspires confidence. Banks are more willing to lend, which further feeds the expansion. Stock markets soar and destabilising speculation further pushes up share prices. There is a stock market bubble.
But bubbles burst. The question is whether the current global stock market boom, with share prices reaching record levels, represents a bubble. One indicator is the price/earnings (PE) ratio of shares. This is the ratio of share prices to earnings per share. Currently the ratio for the US index, S&P 500, is just over 26. This compares with a mean over the past 147 years of 15.64. The current ratio is the third highest after the peaks of the early 2000s and 2008/9.
An alternative measure of the PE ratio is the Shiller PE ratio (see also). This is named after Robert Shiller, who wrote the book Irrational Exuberance. Unlike conventional PE ratios, which only look at average earnings over the past four quarters, the Shiller PE ratio uses average earnings over the past 10 years. “Because this factors in earnings from the previous ten years, it is less prone to wild swings in any one year.”
The current level of the Shiller PE ratio is 29.14, the third highest on record, this time after the period running up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The mean Shiller PE ratio over the past 147 years is 16.72.
So are we in a period of irrational exuberance? And are stock markets experiencing a bubble that sooner or later will burst? The following articles explore these questions.
2 Clear Instances of Irrational Exuberance Seeking Alpha, Jeffrey Himelson (12/2/17)
Promised land of Trumpflation-inspired global stimulus has been slow off the mark South China Morning Post, David Brown (20/2/17)
A stock market crash is a way off, but this boom will turn to bust The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/2/17)
The “boring” bubble is close to bursting – the Unilever bid proves it MoneyWeek, John Stepek (20/2/17)
- Find out what is meant by Minksy’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and a ‘Minsky moment’. How might they explain irrational exuberance and the sudden turning point from a boom to a bust?
- Is it really irrational to buy shares with a very high PE ratio if everyone else is doing so?
- Why are people currently exuberant?
- What might cause the current exuberance to end?
- How does irrational exuberance affect the size of the multiplier?
- How might the behaviour of banks and other financial institutions contribute towards a boom fuelled by irrational exuberance?
- Compare the usefulness of a standard PE ratio with the Shiller PE ratio.
- Other than high PE ratios, what else might suggest that stock markets are overvalued?
- Why might a company’s PE ratio differ from its price/dividends ratio (see)? Which is a better measure of whether or not a share is overvalued?
In a recent blog, Falling sterling – bad for some; good for others, we looked at the depreciation of sterling following the Brexit vote. We saw how it will have beneficial effects for some, such as exporters, and adverse effects for others, such as consumers having to pay a higher price for imports and foreign holidays. The article linked below examines these effects in more depth.
Just how much the quantity of exports will increase depends on two main things. The first is the amount by which the foreign currency price falls. This depends on what exporters choose to do. Say the pound falls from €1.30 to €1.18. Do exporters who had previously sold a product selling in the UK for £100 and in the eurozone for €130, now reduce the euro price to €118? Or do they put it down by less – say, to €125, thereby earning £105.93 (£(125/1.18)). Their sales would increase by less, but their profit margin would rise.
The second is the foreign currency price elasticity of demand for exports in the foreign markets. The more elastic it is, the more exports will rise for any given euro price reduction.
It is similar with imports. How much the sales of these fall depends again on two main things. The first is the amount by which the importing companies are prepared to raise sterling prices. Again assume that the pound falls from €1.30 to €1.18 – in other words, the euro rises from 76.92p (£1/1.3) to 84.75p (£1/1.18). What happens to the price of an import to the UK from the eurozone whose euro price is €100? Does the importer raise the price from £76.92 to £84.75, or by less than that, being prepared to accept a smaller profit margin?
The second is the sterling price elasticity of demand for imports in the UK. The more elastic it is, the more imports will fall and, probably, the more the importer will be prepared to limit the sterling price increase.
The article also looks at the effect on aggregate demand. As we saw in the previous blog, a depreciation boosts aggregate demand by increasing exports and curbing imports. The effects of this rise in aggregate demand depends on the degree of slack in the economy and the extent, therefore, that (a) exporters and those producing import substitutes can respond in terms of high production and employment and (b) other sectors can produce more as multiplier effects play out.
Finally, the article looks at the effect of the depreciation of sterling on asset prices. UK assets will be worth less in foreign currency terms; foreign assets will be worth more in sterling. Just how much the prices of internationally traded assets, such as shares and some property, will change depends, again, on their price elasticities of demand. In terms of assets, there has been a gain to UK balance sheets from the depreciation. As Roger Bootle says:
Whereas the overwhelming majority of the UK’s liabilities to foreigners are denominated in sterling, the overwhelming bulk of our assets abroad are denominated in foreign currency. So the lower pound has raised the sterling value of our overseas assets while leaving the sterling value of our liabilities more or less unchanged.
How a lower pound will help us to escape cloud cuckoo land, The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (31/7/16)
- What determines the amount that exporters from the UK adjust the foreign currency price of their exports following a depreciation of sterling?
- What determines the amount by which importers to the UK adjust the sterling price of their products following a depreciation of sterling?
- What determines the amount by which sterling will depreciate over the coming months?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation? How does this apply to exchange rates and what determines the likelihood of there being destabilising speculation against sterling exchange rates?
- How is UK inflation likely to be affected by a depreciation of sterling?
- Why does Roger Bootle believe that the UK has been living in ‘cloud cuckoo land’ with respect to exchange rates?
- Why has the UK managed to sustain a large current account deficit over so many years?
People are beginning to get used to low oil prices and acting as if they are going to remain low. Oil is trading at only a little over $30 per barrel and Saudi Arabia is unwilling to backtrack on its policy of maintaining its level of production and not seeking to prevent oil prices from falling. Currently, there is still a position of over supply and hence in the short term the price could continue falling – perhaps to $20 per barrel.
But what of the future? What will happen in the medium term (6 to 12 months) and the longer term? Investment in new oil wells, both conventional and shale oil, have declined substantially. The position of over supply could rapidly come to an end. The Telegraph article below quotes the International Energy Agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, as saying:
“Investment in oil exploration and production across the world has been cut to the bone, falling 24% last year and an estimated 17% this year. This is… far below the minimum levels needed to keep up with future demand. …
It is easy for consumers to be lulled into complacency by ample stocks and low prices today, but they should heed the writing on the wall: the historic investment cuts raise the odds of unpleasant oil security surprises in the not too distant future.”
And in the Overview of the IEA’s 2016 Medium-Term Oil Market Report, it is stated that
In today’s oil market there is hardly any spare production capacity other than in Saudi Arabia and Iran and significant investment is required just to maintain existing production before we move on to provide the new capacity needed to meet rising oil demand. The risk of a sharp oil price rise towards the later part of our forecast arising from insufficient investment is as potentially de-stabilising as the sharp oil price fall has proved to be.
The higher-cost conventional producers, such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Russia and off-shore producers, could take a long time to rebuild capacity as investment in conventional wells is costly, especially off-shore.
As far as shale oil producers is concerned – the prime target of Saudi Arabia’s policy of not cutting back supply – production could well bounce back after a relatively short time as wells are re-opened and investment in new wells is resumed.
But, price rises in the medium term could then be followed by lower prices again a year or two thereafter as oil from new investment comes on stream: or they could continue rising if investment is insufficient. It depends on the overall balance of demand and supply. The table shows the IEA’s forecast of production and consumption and the effect on oil stocks. From 2018, it is predicting that consumption will exceed production and that, therefore, stocks will fall – and at an accelerating rate.
But just what happens to the balance of production and consumption will also depend on expectations. If shale oil investors believe that an oil price bounce is temporary, they are likely to hold off investing. But this will, in turn, help to sustain a price bounce, which in turn, could help to encourage investment. So expectations of investors will depend on what other investors expect to happen – a very difficult outcome to predict. It’s a form of Keynesian beauty contest (see the blog post A stock market beauty contest of the machines) where what is important is what other people think will happen, which in turn depends on what they think other people will do, and so on.
At $30 oil price, shale rebound may take much, much longer CNBC, Patti Domm , Bob Iaccino, Helima Croft and Matt Smith (25/2/16)
Opec has failed to stop US shale revolution admits energy watchdog The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (27/2/16)
Medium-term Oil Market Report 2016: Overview International Energy Agency (IEA) (22/2/16)
- Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what happened to oil prices in 2015; (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016; (c) what is likely to happen to them in 2017/18.
- Why have oil prices fallen so much over the past 12 months?
- Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
- What have have been the advantages and disadvantages of lower oil prices? In your answer, distinguish between the effects on different people, countries and the world generally.
- Why is oil supply more price elastic in the long run than in the short run?
- Why does supply elasticity vary between different types of oil fields (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- What determines whether speculation about future oil prices is likely to be stabilising or destabilising?
- What role has OPEC played in determining the oil price over the past few months? What role can it play over the coming years?
- Explain the concept of a ‘Keynesian beauty contest’ in the context of speculation about future oil prices, and why this makes the prediction of future oil prices more difficult.
- Give some other examples of human behaviour which is in the form of a Keynesian beauty contest.
- Why may playing a Keynesian beauty contest lead to an undesirable Nash equilibrium?