Aug172009

Psychological states of a financial bubble

Psychological Stages of a Bubble

Once a bubble starts to form, it will go through several identifiable stages: enthusiasm, greed, denial, fear, capitulation, and despair. Each of these stages is characterized by different speculator emotional states and different resulting behaviors. There are outside forces that also act on the market in predictable ways in each one of these stages. Most often, these outside factors serve to reinforce the market’s herd behavior and exacerbate changes in price.

Precipitating Factor

There is often a precipitating factor causing the initial price rally that pushes prices above their supported fundamental values. A bubble rally is usually kicked off by some exogenous event, but it may occur simply because prices have been rising and investors take notice, or it can be merely the result of a lack of investor fear and the widespread belief prices cannot go down. In a typical market, there is a significant selloff when prices exceed fundamental valuations. This selloff is a natural reaction to inflated prices as a decline to fundamental valuations is normal and expected. Many seasoned market observers will “sell short” here to profit from the initially inflated values caused during the take-off stage. However, in a financial mania, this sell off is short-lived, and it traps many who are bearish on asset pricing on the wrong side of the trade. This “short squeeze” may prompt a feverish activity of buying as short sellers cover their positions before their losses get too great. A short squeeze may act as a precipitating factor. In a securities market, a precipitating factor may be a very large order hitting the trading floor, and in a real estate market it may be a dramatic lowering of interest rates as it was in the Great Housing Bubble. Regardless of its cause, the initial price rise has the potential to spark sufficient interest to prompt further buying and set a series of events in motion which repeat with a remarkable consistency. Market bubbles can be found in all financial markets and on multiple timeframes.

Figure 35: Psychological Stages of a Bubble Market

Psychological Stages of a Bubble Market(1)

 

Enthusiasm Stage

At the beginning of the enthusiasm stage, prices are already inflated, so there is cautious buying from traders looking for trends and momentum. If prices fail to drop to fundamental valuations and instead push higher, media attention is often drawn to the speculative market. The general public starts to take notice of the money being made by people who have bought the featured asset and they begin to participate in larger numbers. Of course, this stimulates more buying and prices continue to climb. The market sentiment turns very bullish. Buyers are everywhere and sellers are scarce. At this point, prices are completely detached from fundamental valuations, but people are not buying because of the underlying value, they are buying because prices are going up.

In residential real estate markets, the enthusiasm stage is often greeted by lenders with open arms. With prices rising, there is little risk of loss from default. If a borrower gets in trouble, they can simply sell into rising prices, and neither party takes a loss. With neither party fearing loss, and since lenders make most of their money on the transaction itself through origination fees, there is an inevitable lowering of standards to meet market demand. This in turn creates more market demand leading to further lowering of standards. The credit cycle reinforces the bullish psychology in the market and helps push prices even higher.

Greed Stage

In the greed stage, the bullish sentiment reaches a feverish pitch and prices rise very rapidly. Every owner in the market is making money and most believe it will go on forever. As prices continue to climb, buyers become very enthusiastic about owning the asset, and they tell all their friends about their great investment. The word-of-mouth awareness and increased media coverage bring even more buyers to the market. Egomania sets in as everyone thinks she is a financial genius. Any intellectual analysis at this stage is merely a cover for emotional buying and greed. During the Great Housing Bubble, there were many instances of properties receiving a dozen or more offers the day they were listed, with many in excess of the asking price. Encouraged by realtors, some buyers wrote emotional letters to sellers to convince them why they should be bestowed with the honor of home ownership.

Most people who are bullish already own the asset, but for prices to continue to rise there must be more buying. For buying to occur, someone who was either bearish or ignorant of the rally must be convinced to buy. In other words, a greater fool must be found. Once everyone is made aware of the market rally and is convinced to buy, you simply run out of new buyers. Once there is a shortage of potential buyers, prices can only go down.

Denial Stage

When the limit of affordability is reached and the pool of available buyers is exhausted, prices start to decline. At first market participants are still overwhelmed by greed, and they choose to ignore the signs that the party might be over. In 2007 most real estate markets were in the denial stage as prices had not dropped enough to cause real fear. Denial is apparent in polls in mid-2007 where 85 percent believed their home would rise in value during the next five years, and 63 percent believe a house is a good investment. That is denial. It is also apparent in the number of homes purchased during the greed stage that are held for sale at breakeven prices-even if this is above market. When the inventory is large, and houses stay on the market for a long time, prices are too high. Sellers who refuse to lower their prices to take a small loss are in denial about the state of the market. They believe bids will increase and some buyer will come along and pay their price-after all, that is the way it was just a couple of years prior. Buyers who bought in the enthusiasm stage are still ahead, so they feel no urgency to sell. They have made good money already and they will hold on with hopes of making a little more. Since they believe the asset will appreciate again (and they have no exit strategy), this group of buyers does not sell. In contrast, the few traders who still hold positions liquidate and go back into cash. Successful traders recognize the emotion of denial as a signal to exit their positions to lock in profits or prevent further damage.

In the denial stage of a residential real estate market, many speculators are unable to obtain the sale price they desire. The accumulation of unrealistically priced houses starts to build a large inventory of homes “hanging” over the market. Overhead supply is a condition in a financial market when many units are held for sale at prices above current market prices. Generally there will be a minor rally after the first price decline as those who missed the big rally but still believe prices will only go up enter the market and cause a short-term increase in prices. This is a bear rally. It is aptly named as those bullish on the market buy right before the bear market reverses and quickly declines. For prices to resume a sustained rally, the overhead supply must be absorbed by the market. Once prices stopped going up and actually began to fall, demand is lessened by diminished buyer enthusiasm and the contraction of credit caused by mounting lender losses. With increasing supply and diminished demand prices cannot rally to absorb the overhead supply. The overall bullish bias to market psychology has not changed much at this point, because owners are in denial about the new reality of the bear market; however, the insufficient quantity of buyers and the beginnings of a credit crunch signal the rally is over and the bubble has popped.

Fear Stage

In the grieving process there is a shift from denial to fear when the reality being denied becomes too obvious to be ignored or pushed out of awareness. There is no acceptance of reality, just the idea that reality might be fact. The fact that an investment might turn out to be a very poor financial decision with long-term repercussions to the speculator’s financial life is generally very difficult to accept. The imaginings of a horrifying future creates fear, and this fear causes people to make decisions regarding their investments.

The most important change in the market in the fear stage is caused by the belief that the rally is over. Price rallies are a self-sustaining price-to-price feedback loop: prices go up because rising prices induces people to buy which in turn drives prices even higher. Once it is widely believed that the rally is over, it is over. Market participants who once only cared about rising prices suddenly become concerned about valuations. Since prices are far above fundamental values and prices are not rising, there is little incentive to buy. The rally is dead.

Another major psychological change occurs in this stage after people accept the rally is dead: people reassess and change their relationship to debt. During the rally, debt becomes a means to take a position in the housing commodity market. Nobody cares how much they are borrowing because they never intend to pay off the loan through payments from their wage income. Most believe they will pay off whatever they borrow in the future when they sell the house for more than they paid. Once prices stop going up, people realize they are simply renting from the bank, and the only way to get ahead and build equity is to pay off a mortgage. The desire to borrow 8 to 10 times income diminishes rapidly as people realize they could never pay off such a large sum. What started in the denial stage as an involuntary contraction of credit, in the fear stage becomes a voluntary contraction of credit as people simply do not want to borrow such large amounts of money.

In August of 2007, a more serious credit crunch gripped financial markets, and during the times that followed there was increased liquidation of bank held inventory. Banks tried to get their wishing prices through the prime selling season, but by the end of the year, there was pressure to get these non-performing assets off their books. The sales of bank foreclosures and the ongoing tightening of credit drove prices down an additional 5% to 10%. This caused some major problems for owners of residential real estate. Fear began to grip the market.

By the time a financial market enters the fear stage, greed stage buyers are seriously underwater. Comparable properties may be selling for 10% less than their breakeven price, and there is little hope that prices will rally. Some sell at this point and take a loss, but most do not. People who bought in the enthusiasm stage come up to their breakeven price and face the same decision the greed stage buyers faced earlier: sell now or hold out for a rally. Even though there is good reason to fear, most do not sell here. They regret it later, but they hold on. Speculators generally only sell an asset when the pain of loss becomes acute. The pain threshold is different for each individual, but there is no real pain until the investment is worth less than the purchase price, so few sell for a profit or at breakeven. Inventories grow in the fear stage because many would like to sell, but sales volumes are light because few are willing to sell at prices buyers are willing to pay.

Prices do not rally here because there are even fewer buyers in the market and a reduced appetite for debt due to the change in market psychology. There are more and more sellers either choosing to sell or being forced to sell, and since there are more sellers than buyers, prices continue to drop. During the fear stage, a majority of buyers during the rally go underwater on their mortgages and endure the associated pain and stress. In the past, since the bubbles of the 80s and 90s were largely built on conventional mortgages, people just held on. During the Great Housing Bubble, people used exotic loan financing terms, and they simply could not afford to make their payments. They borrowed from other sources until their credit lines were exhausted and they imploded in foreclosure and bankruptcy. During this stage many renters who would otherwise have purchased a home put off their purchase and save more money because they correctly see the decline in prices has momentum and prices should continue to drop further.

Capitulation Stage

The transition from the fear stage to the capitulation stage is caused by the infectious belief that the rally is over. There is a tipping point where a critical mass of market participants either decide to sell or are forced to sell. In residential real estate, people are compelled to sell by anxiety, and the mechanism for force is foreclosure. Once a critical mass of selling is reached, the selling causes prices to decline further which in turn causes more selling. This convinces even more people the rally is over yielding even more selling: a downward spiral. The same price-to-price feedback mechanism that served to drive prices up during the rally works to drive prices down during the crash. Collectively, everyone in the market accepts prices are going to drop further, and they need to get out: Now! Of course when everyone knows prices are going to drop, and everyone is trying to sell, there are very few buyers. Each market participant has a different threshold for pain. Some give up early; some give up later; some stubbornly try to hold on, but in the end, by choice or by force, everyone who cannot afford their home sells out and capitulates to the forces of the market. Each seller accepts the market rally was a bubble, and the frenzy of selling activity clears out the overhead supply. The capitulation stage is the counterpart of the greed stage. Sellers are everywhere and buyers are scarce. This puts prices into free-fall until a critical mass of buyers is ready to buy again.

Since buyers in the aftermath of a bubble tend to be the risk averse who did not participate in it, they will make cautiously low offers on properties. Buyer caution is reinforced by lender caution. In stark contrast to the days of bubble lending, large downpayments are suddenly required, appraisals are carefully reviewed, eligibility is tighter, and most exotic loan programs are gone. This cautious buying together with desperate sellers causes the market to drop below normal valuation standards. The market enters the despair stage. Here the market participants think nobody wants the asset, and nobody ever will again. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth as those who recognize the fundamental value of the asset are buying it in preparation for the next cycle.

Despair Stage

From a perspective of market psychology, it is difficult to tell when the ca-pitulation stage ends and the despair stage begins. Both stages have an extremely negative bearish sentiment. It is called the despair stage because most who own the asset are in despair and wish they did not own it, and the general public is still selling. Most who still own their homes are able to afford the monthly payments, but realize they will face a large loss if they sell their house anytime soon. They feel like prisoners in their own homes because they are unable to relocate for a better job or any other reason. One distinguishing feature of the despair stage is the increased buying activity of investors-true investors, not the speculators who were wiped out during the price decline. Investors are not in despair during this stage. This is the time they were anticipating to make their purchases.

There is an extreme emotional toll paid by those who participated in the mania. Losing a home to foreclosure is devastating. The emotional ties to a home go beyond seeing it as an investment. A home is supposed to be a safe haven where people raise a family. It is a unique reflection of the family, adorned with mementos and family photographs. Being forced to leave the family home is difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with money. Unfortunately, this is often followed by personal bankruptcy, and the difficulties in bankruptcy have everything to do with money.

In some ways, those who endure foreclosure may be the lucky ones as they get to leave their debtor’s prison and go find an affordable rental. The income that used to go toward housing is now freed up to go toward living a life. Those homeowners who hang on, who are desperately underwater, and who are putting 50% or more of their income toward a house worth less than they owe on it, their circumstances are arguably even more dire. There is no light at the end of their tunnel; they must live with their pain every day.

The despair stage is not desperate for everyone. What makes the despair stage different from the capitulation stage is that buyers who focus on funda-mentals like rental savings or positive cashflow return to the market and begin buying. Affordability has returned to the housing market, and those who did not participate in the mania finally get their chance to become homeowners-at reasonable prices. These buyers are not concerned with appreciation; they simply want an asset which provides a savings or a cash return on their investment. They are not frightened by falling prices because their financial returns are independent of the asset’s market valuation. It is the return of these people to the market that creates a bottom.