Speculation in markets can lead to wild swings in prices as exuberance drives up prices and
pessimism leads to price crashes. When the rise in price exceeds underlying fundamentals, such as profit, the result is a bubble. And bubbles burst.
There have been many examples of bubbles throughout history. One of the most famous is that of tulips in the 17th century. As Box 2.4 in Essential Economics for Business (6th edition) explains:
Between November 1636 and February 1637, there was a 20-fold increase in the price of tulip bulbs, such that a skilled worker’s annual salary would not even cover the price of one bulb. Some were even worth more than a luxury home! But, only three months later, their price had fallen by 99 per cent. Some traders refused to pay the high price and others began to sell their tulips. Prices began falling. This dampened demand (as tulips were seen to be a poor investment) and encouraged more people to sell their tulips. Soon the price was in freefall, with everyone selling. The bubble had burst .
Another example was the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Here, shares in the South Sea Company, given a monopoly by the British government to trade with South America, increased by 900% before collapsing through a lack of trade.
Another, more recent, example is that of Poseidon. This was an Australian nickel mining company which announced in September 1969 that it had discovered a large seam of nickel at Mount Windarra, WA. What followed was a bubble. The share price rose from $0.80 in mid-1969 to a peak of $280 in February 1970 and then crashed to just a few dollars.
Other examples are the Dotcom bubble of the 1990s, the US housing bubble of the mid-2000s and BitCoin, which has seen more than one bubble.
Bubbles always burst eventually. If you buy at a low price and sell at the peak, you can make a lot of money. But many will get their fingers burnt. Those who come late into the market may pay a high price and, if they are slow to sell, can then make a large loss.
GameStop shares – an unlikely candidate for a bubble
The most recent example of a bubble is GameStop. This is a chain of shops in the USA selling games, consoles and other electronic items. During the pandemic it has struggled, as games consumers have turned to online sellers of consoles and online games. It has been forced to close a number of stores. In July 2020, its share price was around $4. With the general recovery in stock markets, this drifted upwards to just under $20 by 12 January 2021.
Then the bubble began.
Hedge fund shorting
Believing that the GameStop shares were now overvalued and likely to fall, many hedge funds started shorting the shares. Shorting (or ‘short selling’) is where investors borrow shares for a fee and immediately sell them on at the current price, agreeing to return them to the lender on a specified day in the near future (the ‘expiration date’). But as the investors have sold the shares they borrowed, they must now buy them at the current price on or before the expiration date so they can return them to the lenders. If the price falls between the two dates, the investors will gain. For example, if you borrow shares and immediately sell them at a current price of £5 and then by the expiration date the price has fallen to $2 and you buy them back at that price to return them to the lender, you make a £3 profit.
But this is a risky strategy. If the price rises between the two dates, investors will lose – as events were to prove.
The swarm of small investors
Enter the ‘armchair investor’. During lockdown, small-scale amateur investing in shares has become a popular activity, with people seeking to make easy gains from the comfort of their own homes. This has been facilitated by online trading platforms such as Robinhood and Trading212. These are easy and cheap, or even free, to use.
What is more, many users of these sites were also collaborating on social media platforms, such as Reddit. They were encouraging each other to buy shares in GameStop and some other companies. In fact, many of these small investors were seeing it as a battle with large-scale institutional investors, such as hedge funds – a David vs. Goliath battle.
With swarms of small investors buying GameStop, its share price surged. From $20 on 12 January, it doubled in price within two days and had reached $77 by 25 January. The frenzy on Reddit then really gathered pace. The share price peaked at $468 early on 28 January. It then fell to $126 less than two hours later, only to rise again to $354 at the beginning of the next day.
Many large investors who had shorted GameStop shares made big losses. Analytics firm Ortex estimated that hedge funds lost a total of $12.5 billion in January. Many small investors, however, who bought early and sold at the peak made huge gains. Other small investors who got the timing wrong made large losses.
And it was not just GameStop. Social media were buzzing with suggestions about buying shares in other poorly performing companies that large-scale institutional investors were shorting. Another target was silver and silver mines. At one point, silver prices rose by more than 10% on 1 February. However, money invested in silver is huge relative to GameStop and hence small investors were unlikely to shift prices by anything like as much as GameStop shares.
Amidst this turmoil, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a statement on 29 January. It warned that it was working closely with other regulators and the US stock exchange ‘to ensure that regulated entities uphold their obligations to protect investors and to identify and pursue potential wrongdoing’. It remains to be seen, however, what it can do to curb the concerted activities of small investors. Perhaps, only the experience of bubbles bursting and the severe losses that can result will make small investors think twice about backing failing companies. Some Davids may beat Goliath; others will be defeated.
Share prices are determined by demand and supply. The same applies to stock market indices, such as the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 in the UK and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in the USA. After all, the indices are the weighted average prices of the shares included in the index. Generally, when economies are performing well, or are expected to do so, share prices will rise. They are likely to fall in a recession or if a recession is anticipated. A main reason for this is that the dividends paid on shares will reflect the profitability of firms, which tends to rise in times of a buoyant economy.
When it first became clear that Covid-19 would become a pandemic and as countries began locking down, so stock markets plummeted. People anticipated that many businesses would fail and that the likely recession would cause profits of many other surviving firms to decline rapidly. People sold shares.
The first chart shows how the FTSE 100 fell from 7466 in early February 2020 to 5190 in late March, a fall of 30.5%. The Dow Jones fell by 34% over the same period. In both cases the fall was driven not only by the decline in the respective economy over the period, but by speculation that further declines were to come (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But then stock markets started rising again, especially the Dow Jones, despite the fact that the recessions in the UK, the USA and other countries were gathering pace. In the second quarter of 2020, the Dow Jones rose by 23% and yet the US economy declined by 33% – the biggest quarterly decline on record. How could this be explained by supply and demand?
In order to boost aggregate demand and reduce the size of the recession, central banks around the world engaged in large-scale quantitative easing. This involves central banks buying government bonds and possibly corporate bonds too with newly created money. The extra money is then used to purchase other assets, such as stocks and shares and property, or physical capital or goods and services. The second chart shows that quantitative easing by the Bank of England increased the Bank’s asset holding from April to July 2020 by 50%, from £469bn to £705bn (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But given the general pessimism about the state of the global economy, employment and personal finances, there was little feed-through into consumption and investment. Instead, most of the extra money was used to buy assets. This gave a huge boost to stock markets. Stock market movements were thus out of line with movements in GDP.
Stock market prices do not just reflect the current economic and financial situation, but also what people anticipate the situation to be in the future. As infection and death rates from Covid-19 waned around Europe and in many other countries, so consumer and business confidence rose. This is illustrated in the third chart, which shows industrial, consumer and construction confidence indicators in the EU. As you can see, after falling sharply as the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and countries were locked down, confidence then rose (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But, as infection rates have risen somewhat in many countries and continue to soar in the USA, Brazil, India and some other countries, this confidence may well start to fall again and this could impact on stock markets.
A final, but related, cause of recent stock market movements is speculation. If people see share prices falling and believe that they are likely to fall further, then they will sell shares and hold cash or safer assets instead. This will amplify the fall and encourage further speculation. If, however, they see share prices rising and believe that they will continue to do so, they are likely to want to buy shares, hoping to make a gain by buying them relatively cheaply. This will amplify the rise and, again, encourage further speculation.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, then stock markets could well fall again, as they could if speculators think that share prices have overshot the levels that reflect the economic and financial situation. But then there may be even further quantitative easing.
There are many uncertainties, both with the pandemic and with governments’ policy responses. These make forecasting stock market movements very difficult. Large gains or large losses could await people speculating on what will happen to share prices.
Back in October, we examined the rise in oil prices. We said that, ‘With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26.’ In that blog we looked at the causes on both the demand and supply sides of the oil market. On the demand side, the world economy had been growing relatively strongly. On the supply side there had been increasing constraints, such as sanctions on Iran, the turmoil in Venezuela and the failure of shale oil output to expand as much as had been anticipated.
But what a difference a few weeks can make!
Brent crude prices have fallen from $86 per barrel in early October to just over $50 by the end of the year – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Explanations can again be found on both the demand and supply sides.
On the demand side, global growth is falling and there is concern about a possible recession (see the blog: Is the USA heading for recession?). The Bloomberg article below reports that all three main agencies concerned with the oil market – the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Paris-based International Energy Agency and OPEC – have trimmed their oil demand growth forecasts for 2019. With lower expected demand, oil companies are beginning to run down stocks and thus require to purchase less crude oil.
On the supply side, US shale output has grown rapidly in recent weeks and US output has now reached a record level of 11.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), up from 10.0 mbpd in January 2018, 8.8 mbpd in January 2017 and 5.4 mbpd in January 2010. The USA is now the world’s biggest oil producer, with Russia producing around 11.4 mpbd and Saudi Arabia around 11.1 mpbd.
Total world supply by the end of 2018 of around 102 mbpd is some 2.5 mbpd higher than expected at the beginning of 2018 and around 0.5 mbpd greater than consumption at current prices (the remainder going into storage).
So will oil prices continue to fall? Most analysts expect them to rise somewhat in the near future. Markets may have overcorrected to the gloomy news about global growth. On the supply side, global oil production fell in December by 0.53 mbpd. In addition OPEC and Russia have signed an accord to reduce their joint production by 1.2 mbpd starting this month (January). What is more, US sanctions on Iran have continued to curb its oil exports.
But whatever happens to global growth and oil production, the future price will continue to reflect demand and supply. The difficulty for forecasters is in predicting just what the levels of demand and supply will be in these uncertain times.
Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks. With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26. But what has caused the price to increase?
On the demand side, the world economy has been growing relatively strongly. Over the past three years, global growth has averaged 3.5%. This has helped to offset the effects of more energy efficient technologies and the gradual shift away from oil to alternative sources of energy.
On the supply side, there have been growing constraints.
The predicted resurgence of shale oil production, after falls in both output and investment when oil prices were low in 2016, has failed to materialise as much as expected. The reason is that pipeline capacity is limited and there is very little scope for transporting more oil from the major US producing area – the Permian basin in West Texas and SE New Mexico. There are similar pipeline capacity constraints from Canadian shale fields. The problem is compounded by shortages of labour and various inputs.
But perhaps the most serious supply-side issue is the renewed sanctions on Iranian oil exports imposed by the Trump administration, due to come into force on 4 November. The USA is also putting pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Iran is the world’s third largest oil exporter.
Also, there has been continuing turmoil in the Venezuelan economy, where inflation is currently around 500 000 per cent and is expected to reach 1 million per cent by the end of the year. Consequently, the country’s oil output is down. Production has fallen by more than a third since 2016. Venezuela was the world’s third largest oil producer.
Winners and losers from high oil prices
The main gainers from high oil prices are the oil producing countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. It will also encourage investment in oil exploration and new oil wells, and could help countries, such as Colombia, with potential that is considered underexploited. However, given that the main problem is a lack of supply, rather than a surge in demand, the gains will be more limited for those countries, such as the USA and Canada, suffering from supply constraints. Clearly there will be no gain for Iran.
In terms of losers, higher oil prices are likely to dampen global growth. If the oil price reaches $100 per barrel, global growth could be around 0.2 percentage points lower than had previously been forecast. In its latest World Economic Outlook, published on 8 October, the IMF has already downgraded its forecast growth for 2018 and 2019 to 3.7% from the 3.9% it forecast six months ago – and this forecast is based on the assumption that oil prices will be $69.38 a barrel in 2018 and $68.76 a barrel in 2019.
Clearly, the negative effect will be greater, the larger a country’s imports are as a percentage of its GDP. Countries that are particularly vulnerable to higher oil prices are the eurozone, Japan, China, India and most other Asian economies. Lower growth in these countries could have significant knock-on effects on other countries.
Consumers in advanced oil-importing countries would face higher fuel costs, accounting for an additional 0.3 per cent of household spending. Inflation could rise by as much as 1 percentage point.
The size of the effects depends on just how much oil prices rise and for how long. This depends on various demand- and supply-side factors, not least of which in the short term is speculation. Crucially, global political events, and especially US policies, will be the major driving factor in what happens.
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.