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July 20, 2021

Whither the Bubblets of 2021?

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July 20, 2021

Whither the Bubblets of 2021?

Tales From the Emerging World

Whither the Bubblets of 2021?

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July 20, 2021


As worry spreads about the rise and fall of market bubbles, which are notoriously difficult to define, we are getting questions about whether these price moves really count as “bubbles,” poised to pop. So we asked history. Its answer is that many of these price moves do show distinctly bubbly traits. And if past patterns hold—admittedly a big if given the extraordinary looseness of monetary conditions-- the probability of deeper pain ahead is quite high.


As bubbles peak, they combine signs of excess — prices rising much faster than earnings can justify — with symptoms of mania, like frenzied trading and borrowing. To some analysts, the entire U.S. stock market looks bubbly, given its dizzying run-up. But earnings growth has also been extraordinarily strong through the pandemic. The current risk is not so much of broad bubbles but of narrow bubblets in specific assets and corners of the market, like cryptocurrencies or clean energy. 

Our study started with ten of the biggest and most famous bubbles of the last century, from the U.S. stock market in 1929 to Chinese shares in 2015, in order to establish the average path of bubbles, before and after the peak. Filtering thousands of specific indexes worldwide would be a virtually endless task, so as a proxy for bubblets we scoured 41 smaller national equity and individual commodity indexes, from Germany and Thailand to soybeans and copper. We started the search in 1970, as far back as comparative data begins.1

Strikingly, our scan for bubblets yielded 39 cases over the last half century in which these markets experienced run-ups of a scale comparable to that of the classic bubbles, and in virtually all cases the ensuing crash also followed the classic path.

Typically, prices rise by 100 percent in the year before the bubble peaks, with much of the gain packed into the climactic last months. That finding is closely in line with academic studies including “Bubbles for Fama,” a 2017 paper from a team at Harvard, widely considered the definitive study of the subject.2  To make sure we aren’t capturing assets that are merely bouncing off extreme lows, we run tests not only for magnitude but also for acceleration and durability of the price move.3

Applying those measures to the markets today, we identified at least five potential bubblets: the crypto market for Bitcoin and Ethereum; clean energy stocks, including some of the biggest names in electric vehicles; small-cap stocks, including many of the hottest pandemic stories; a basket of tech stocks that lack earnings, which is also chockablock with famous brands; and special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), which allow investors a new way to buy into private firms before they go public.

Each of these potential bubblets is captured in an index that rose in the last year by around 100 percent - often much more - to a peak value between $500 billion and $2.5 trillion. Day traders, celebrities and other newbies rushed in, a common symptom of late-stage market manias. In the case of Bitcoin, which no one knows how to value, it was nearly impossible to conclude for sure whether a price over $60,000 was divorced from fundamentals or not. Lately, most of these potential bubblets have faltered, as they often do, amid concern about the possibility of a rise in long-term interest rates. What’s next?

Bubblets of 2021 Are Following the Classic Bubble Path

Source: MSIM analysis, Bloomberg, FactSet, Haver. Data as of July 12, 2021.


The 10 original bubbles in our study did suffer midcourse setbacks on the way up, but typically those corrections were around 25 percent and never more than 35 percent. The result for our 39 bubblets was very similar, with a typical midcourse correction of around 30 percent, and very rarely (in only five cases) of more than 40 percent. Beyond that threshold—in the 35 to 40 percent range— the bubbles and bubblets became monophasic, or very likely to be stuck on a one-way downhill path.

For the median case among the 39 bubblets, the bottom was found 71 percent below the peak and came about two years (22 months) after the peak. Again, this trajectory was very similar in scale and timing to the path of the 10 broad historic bubbles, deepening our confidence in the pattern and its relevance for understanding bubble behavior.

Today, except for the index of small-cap tech stocks, the other four bubblet candidates have all experienced drops of at least 35 percent, but at most of 55 percent (in the case of Ethereum). In other words, they have dipped below the monophasic threshold, implying that they are not likely suffering a mere midcourse correction, and are not likely to return to their recent peaks any time soon. But they are still far from the typical bottom, of more than 70 percent down. 

There is one new factor that could upset this historical pattern. There is plenty of liquidity sloshing around the markets, with central banks committed to easy money as never before, which could arrest the popping of some bubblets. Right now, the indexes for clean energy and tech stocks with no earnings have enjoyed a partial recovery from their post-peak low. But the risks likely remain skewed to the downside. 

It is important to remember that a bubble is often a good idea gone too far. In the early 2000s, the conventional wisdom was that the dotcom bubble had fueled mainly junk companies. Later researchers found that, compared with other bubbles, those in the tech sector produce many startups that fail but also help launch major innovations. For every few dozen dotcom flameouts, there was a giant survivor like Google or Amazon that would go on to make the economy more productive.

By and large, the bubblets of 2021 fit this profile. The tech trends that accelerated during the pandemic, from teleconferencing to online learning, will help increase productivity for long after the pandemic passes. The demand for greener cars and energy is very unlikely to abate until climate change does. Though often ridiculed as “blank check companies,” SPACs can also be looked at as an innovative new way to finance initial public offerings.

The most intriguing new idea is cryptocurrency. Impassioned debate over its future helps explain the gyrations of Bitcoin, now on the far side of its third massive run-up in eight years. It is an outlier to which historical patterns may not well apply. And there remains a sound case for a secure digital store of value which cuts out the middlemen and offers an alternative to the overstretched U.S. dollar.

Skimming off the froth will be painful for many. But history will judge the bubblets of 2021 by what they leave behind, not just by how far they fall from here.


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1. MSIM “Bubble” analysis – July 12, 2021
2. “Bubbles for Fama” Robin Greenwood, Andrei Shleifer, Yang You – February 2017
3. Our bubble analysis includes three quantitative criteria, consistent with the characteristics of the well-known historical bubbles: a gain of at least 100 percent in trailing 12-month period (large magnitude); of at least 60 percent in trailing 6-month period (large acceleration); at least 150 percent in trailing 18-month period (durability)


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