To paraphrase one of the great gems of Wall Street wisdom, “Nothing infuriates a man more than the sight of other people making money.” That’s a pretty good description of what happens during the late stage of a stock market bubble.
The bubble participants are making money (at least on a mark-to-market basis) every day. Meanwhile, the more patient, prudent investor is stuck on the sidelines — allocated to cash or low-risk investments while watching everyone else have fun. This is especially true today when the bubble is not confined to the stock market but includes exotic sideshows like crypto-currencies and Chinese real estate.
It gets even worse when investors are taunted by headlines like the one in this article, “Investors Can Either Buy Bubbles or Be Left Far Behind.” This article is a case study in the “Bubblicious Portfolio.” Infuriating indeed. Actually it should not be.
On a risk-adjusted basis, the prudent investor is not missing much. When markets go up 10%, 20% or more in short periods, market participants think of their gains as money in the bank. Yet, that’s not true unless you sell and cash out of the market. Few do this because they’re afraid to “miss out” on continued gains.
The problem comes when the bubble bursts and losses of 30%, 40% or more pile up quickly. Investors tell themselves they’ll be smart enough to get out in time, but that’s not true either. Typically investors don’t believe the tape. They “buy the dips,” (which keep dipping lower), then they refuse to sell until they “get back to even,” which can take ten years. These are predictable behaviors of real investors caught up in real bubbles.
It’s better just to diversify, build up a cash reserve, have some gold for catastrophe insurance, and then wait out the bubble crowd. When the crash comes, which it always does, you’ll be well positioned to shop for high-quality bargains amid the rubble. Then you’ll participate in the next long upswing without today’s risks of a sudden meltdown.