5 Steps Of A Bubble
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Do Your Research

Think about what you'd really like to do on your vacation and create a list to narrow your choices - whether it's hitting the beach, going shopping, climbing a mountain or visiting a museum. Consider whether you can do this somewhere nearby, or whether you know anyone who has done your chosen activities before on a similar budget. Alternatively, travel agencies or even chat rooms on the topic can provide great advice on accommodations, places to dine, things to do and tourist traps to avoid. Internet sites such as Yahoo! Travel, Expedia and Priceline are often useful when seeking reasonable fares.

The term "bubble," in the financial context, generally refers to a situation in which the price of an asset exceeds its fundamental value by a large margin. During a bubble, prices for a financial asset or asset class are highly inflated, bearing little relation to the intrinsic value of the asset. The terms "asset price bubble," "financial bubble" or "speculative bubble" are interchangeable, and are often shortened simply to "bubble."

Bubble Characteristics

A basic characteristic of a bubble is the suspension of disbelief by most participants during the "bubble phase." There is a failure to recognize that regular market participants and other forms of traders are engaged in a speculative exercise that is not supported by previous valuation techniques. Also, bubbles are usually identified only in retrospect, after the bubble has burst. Economist Hyman Minsky identified five stages in a typical credit cycle – displacement, boom, euphoria, profit taking and panic. Although there are various interpretations of the cycle, the general pattern of bubble activity remains fairly consistent.

1. Displacement

A displacement occurs when investors get enamored by a new paradigm, such as an innovative new technology or interest rates that are historically low. A classic example of displacement is the decline in the federal funds rate from 6.5% in May, 2000, to 1% in June, 2003. Over this three-year period, the interest rate on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell by 2.5 percentage points to a historic lows of 5.21%, sowing the seeds for the housing bubble.

2. Boom

Prices rise slowly at first, following a displacement, but then gain momentum as more and more participants enter the market, setting the stage for the boom phase. During this phase, the asset in question attracts widespread media coverage. Fear of missing out on what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity spurs more speculation, drawing an increasing number of participants into the fold.

3. Euphoria

During this phase, caution is thrown to the wind, as asset prices skyrocket. The "greater fool" theory plays out everywhere. Valuations reach extreme levels during this phase. For example, at the peak of the Japanese real estate bubble in 1989, land in Tokyo sold for as much as $139,000 per square foot, or more than 350-times the value of Manhattan property. After the bubble burst, real estate lost approximately 80% of its inflated value, while stock prices declined by 70%. Similarly, at the height of the internet bubble in March, 2000, the combined value of all technology stocks on the Nasdaq was higher than the GDP of most nations.

4. Profit Taking

By this time, the smart money – heeding the warning signs – is generally selling out positions and taking profits. But estimating the exact time when a bubble is due to collapse can be a difficult exercise and extremely hazardous to one's financial health because, as John Maynard Keynes put it, "the markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." Note that it only takes a relatively minor event to prick a bubble, but once it is pricked, the bubble cannot "inflate" again.

5. Panic

In the panic stage, asset prices reverse course and descend as rapidly as they had ascended. Investors and speculators, faced with margin calls and plunging values of their holdings, now want to liquidate them at any price. As supply overwhelms demand, asset prices slide sharply. One of the most vivid examples of global panic in financial markets occurred in October 2008, weeks after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG almost collapsed. The S&P 500 plunged almost 17% that month, its ninth-worst monthly performance. In that single month, global equity markets lost a staggering $9.3 trillion of 22% of their combined market capitalization.

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