Blowing Bubbles

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 17, 2010

In The Big Short, Michael Lewis explains the subprime bubble mentality through a quote about CNBC media coverage. “…they weren’t in touch with reality anymore. If something negative happened, they’d spin it positive. If something positive happened, they’d blow it out of proportion..” A page turner that clearly and capitvatingly describes the subprime believers and doubters on Wall Street, The Big Short is a perfect story of a bubble.

In addition to the subprime bubble and the tech bubble, there once was a bowling bubble. In 1936, Gottfried Schmidt invented the first automatic pinsetter. With machines replacing pin boys, after World War II, bowling boomed and Wall Street responded. As a young Charles Schwab said, “Compute it out–180 million people times two hours per week, for 52 weeks. That’s a lot of bowling.” The result was soaring stock prices in firms such as AMF and Brunswick and the bowling bubble. By 1963, though, following the path of all bubbles, the market reversed and prices plunged to 20% of their all time highs.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki says that crowds can usually make decisions that are more accurate than individuals. In markets, crowds accurately price sodas and broccoli and tennis lessons. Studies demonstrate that crowds’ guesses cluster around the true number of jelly beans in those huge glass jugs. Similarly, bubbles are an example of crowd behavior. Here though, we have “collective decision-making gone wrong”.

The Economic Lesson

Usually investors have “long” positions. They buy a stock (ownership in a company), wait for its price to rise (hopefully), and then sell it.

Selling before they buy, short sellers want prices to decline. How can you sell something you do not own?  Short sellers borrow a stock or some other type of security and then they sell it. Weeks, months, or years later, they buy the security and return it to the owner from whom they borrowed it. For example, assume you borrow something and sell it for $10; then, weeks later you buy something identical for $5 and return it to the lender. You have made $5.

In The Big Short, a very small number of people, rather like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, realized the folly of buying subprime related securities and instead shorted them.


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