An economic bubble
(sometimes referred to as a speculative bubble
, a market bubble
, a price bubble
, a financial bubble
, or a speculative mania
) is “trade in high volumes at prices that are considerably at variance from intrinsic values
While some economists deny that bubbles occur, the cause of bubbles remains a challenge to those who are convinced that asset prices often deviate strongly from intrinsic values. While many explanations have been suggested, it has been recently shown that bubbles appear even without uncertainty, speculation, or bounded rationality. Most recently, it has been suggested that bubbles might ultimately be caused by processes of price coordination or emerging social norms.
Because it is often difficult to observe intrinsic values in real-life markets, bubbles are often identified only in retrospect, when a sudden drop in prices appears. Such a drop is known as a crash or a bubble burst. Both the boom and the bust phases of the bubble are examples of a positive feedback mechanism, in contrast to the negative feedback mechanism that determines the equilibrium price under normal market circumstances. Prices in an economic bubble can fluctuate erratically, and become impossible to predict from supply and demand alone.
Economic bubbles are generally considered to have a negative impact on the economy because they tend to cause misallocation of resources into non-optimal uses. In addition, the crash which usually follows an economic bubble can destroy a large amount of wealth and cause continuing economic malaise. A protracted period of low risk premiums can simply prolong the downturn in asset price deflation as was the case of the Great Depression
in the 1930s for much of the world and the 1990s for Japan
. Not only can the aftermath of a crash devastate the economy of a nation, but its effects can also reverberate beyond its borders.
Another important aspect of economic bubbles is their impact on spending habits. Market participants with overvalued assets tend to spend more because they "feel" richer (the wealth effect). Many observers quote the housing market in the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain and parts of the United States in recent times, as an example of this effect. When the bubble inevitably bursts, those who hold on to these overvalued assets usually experience a feeling of poorness and tend to cut discretionary spending at the same time, hindering economic growth or, worse, exacerbating the economic slowdown. Therefore, it is imperative for the central bank to keep its eyes on asset price appreciation and take measures to curb high levels of speculative activity in financial assets. This is usually done by increasing the interest rate (that is, the cost of borrowing money).
It has been variously suggested that bubbles may be rational, intrinsic, and contagious. To date, there is no widely accepted theory to explain their occurrence.
Puzzlingly, bubbles occur even in highly predictable experimental markets, where uncertainty is eliminated and market participants should be able to calculate the intrinsic value of the assets simply by examining the expected stream of dividends. Nevertheless, bubbles have been observed repeatedly in experimental markets, even with participants such as business students, managers, and professional traders. Experimental bubbles have proven robust to a variety of conditions, including short-selling, margin buying, and insider trading.
While it is not clear what causes bubbles, there is evidence to suggest that they are not caused by bounded rationality or assumptions about the irrationality of others, as assumed by greater fool theory. It has also been shown that bubbles appear even when market participants are well-capable of pricing assets correctly. Further, it has been shown that bubbles appear even when speculation is not possible or when over-confidence is absent.
Social psychology factors
Greater fool theory
Popular among laymen but not fully confirmed by empirical research, greater fool theory
portrays bubbles as driven by the behavior of a perennially optimistic market participants (the fools) who buy overvalued assets in anticipation of selling it to other rapacious speculators (the greater fools) at a much higher price. According to this unsupported explanation, the bubbles continue as long as the fools can find greater fools to pay up for the overvalued asset. The bubbles will end only when the greater fool becomes the greatest fool who pays the top price for the overvalued asset and can no longer find another buyer to pay for it at a higher price.
A related explanation is that economic bubbles are favored by the greed and irrational exuberance
of overly bullish investors. The argument is that investors tend to extrapolate past extraordinary returns on investment of certain assets into the future, causing them to overbid those risky assets in order to attempt to continue to capture those same rates of return. Overbidding on certain assets will at some point result in uneconomic rates of return for investors; only then the asset price deflation will begin. When investors feel that they are no longer well compensated for holding those risky assets, they will start to demand higher rates of return on their investments.
Another related explanation used in behavioral finance
lies in herd behavior
, the fact that investors tend to buy or sell in the direction of the market trend. This is sometimes helped by technical analysis
that tries precisely to detect those trends and follow them, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy
Others argue that the cause of bubbles is excessive monetary liquidity in the financial system, inducing lax or inappropriate lending standards by the banks
, which then causes asset markets to be vulnerable to volatile hyperinflation
caused by short-term, leveraged speculation. According to the explanation, excessive monetary liquidity (easy credit, large disposable incomes) potentially occurs while fractional reserve banks are implementing expansionary monetary policy (i.e. lowering of interest rates and flushing the financial system with money supply). When interest rates are going down, investors tend to avoid putting their capital into savings accounts. Instead, investors tend to leverage their capital by borrowing from banks and invest the leveraged capital in financial assets such as equities
and real estate
Simply put, economic bubbles often occur when too much money is chasing too few assets, causing both good assets and bad assets to appreciate excessively beyond their fundamentals to an unsustainable level. The bubbles will burst only when the central bank reverses its monetary accommodation policy and soaks up the liquidity in the financial system. The removal of monetary accommodation policy is commonly known as a contractionary monetary policy. When the central bank raises interest rates, investors tend to become risk averse and thus avoid leveraged capital because the costs of borrowing may become too expensive.
Other possible causes
Some regard bubbles as related to inflation
and thus believe that the causes of inflation are also the causes of bubbles. Others take the view that there is a "fundamental value" to an asset
, and that bubbles represent a rise over that fundamental value, which must eventually return to that fundamental value. There are chaotic theories of bubbles which assert that bubbles come from particular "critical" states in the market based on the communication of economic factors. Finally, others regard bubbles as necessary consequences of irrationally valuing assets solely based upon their returns in the recent past without resorting to a rigorous analysis based on their underlying "fundamentals"
Bubbles and purported bubbles: examples
Examples of economic bubbles include:
Other goods which have produced bubbles include postage stamps and coin collecting.
Aftermath of bubbles: examples