Ease Off the Bubble-Calling

 | Jun 04, 2013 | 7:00 AM EDT  | Comments
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There's something about bubble-calling that's irresistible to grown-up pundits in search of getting their names around. They are always calling "bubble!" It's the bubble in junk credit; the bubble in housing; the bubble in Treasuries; the bubble in higher-yield stocks. It never stops. This is yet another kind of binary thinking, like the not-lamented-at-all passing of "risk-on/risk-off."

I totally understand the desire of someone who has something to sell, or of someone who wants to create a big name for themselves, to call a bubble. What could be better than calling a bubble in housing after a 10% increase in the price of a home? Think about how wise that is. If the bubble "bursts," and suddenly housing prices come crashing down, you are a genius! If housing goes up in price, that might be even better, because then it's an even bigger bubble. How much smarter can you sound?

More important, what do you have to lose? Is someone going to call you out on Twitter for being too bearish? Every now and then that happens. For instance, I had been saying that Tesla's (TSLA) too hard to evaluate because it is a cult stock -- and then someone on Twitter said I'd kept him out of Tesla. But that's become more and more the way of Twitter, which has developed into one of those Man Who Shot Liberty Valance things where someone only feels big if they can throw you off his game -- if they can take you down.

Bubble-calling is just the cheapest way of getting known -- and if the bubble "bursts," hallelujah.

Me? I think things are different. Instead of seeing bubbles, I think sometimes things get too high. Take Hershey (HSY). Take Coca-Cola (KO). The latter is one of the greatest companies in the world: consistent cash flow, a decent dividend and a terrific record of raising it. But shares trade at 2.3x Coca-Cola's growth rate, something that's just too expensive for me to recommend, no matter how good the company is.

Does that mean there is a bubble in Coca-Cola? How about we just say it has gotten too expensive?

Or how about housing? Housing's a totally regional business. Yet we have decided to take the number released last week -- a 10% increase in housing prices -- and declare that the nation, once again, is in a housing bubble. Some areas have indeed gone up, but a lot others haven't. The overall actual home is worth less now than it had been in 2006. We have had so few homes built that we can't tell what the market really is like. But we know it isn't overheating nationwide.

Bubble?

Now, regarding bond funds, it is true that they have become dangerous places. Interest rates could rally, and that would cause these funds to fall, and fall hard, like we saw many junk bond funds do last week and Monday. But they aren't "bubbles" that will knock our whole nation off its stride if they burst. They are just potentially a place for large losses.

Once you put the "bubble-popping" in perspective -- once you recognize that all that could happen is that something overvalued could down in price, sometimes swiftly – you can stop scaring people and actually help them. But that's not the goal of the bubble-callers. Their goal is to become known, to be heralded, to get on television, to be interviewed on the Web and to sell books and to get subscribers and contracts to perform. Too bad -- they could actually be of help if they weren't so busy bring grandiose and inflammatory for the sake of being recognizable figures at all costs.

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