Fear and greed are like two wheels on a motorcycle. In the stock market fear and greed are essential to its function and purpose. If one is out of balance the ride is less sustainable. But if one wheel is missing, the motorcycle is useless.
If fear was compromised, what becomes of the motorcycle?
The motorcycle becomes a rocket, powerful and predictable, yet not viable unless unlimited fuel is supplied.
From the stock markets’ perspective, the rocket fuel is the economy; how much you put in predicts what comes out. To grasp the metaphor, the financial crisis of 2008 represents an excellent example of when fear and greed collided.
The worst economic disaster since the debacle of 1929 had stock prices lower than since the Great Depression. Fear controlled the rules. Buy the fear, sell the greed only works when the fear factor is understood. Difficult to do when the “hardwired” evolutionary profile of humans elicits an avoid response to perceived danger. Meanwhile, the emotional energy of greed is based on a single word “hope.” Yet, the anticipated rewards never exceed the expectations of cost and time because fear hangs of every smell, turn, and shade of the commitment.
Since fear and greed are real forces to control financial markets, if it is out of balance, chaos will eventually happen to freeze out the use of the markets to determine value on a universal basis. The simple truth had its making with the phrase “too big to fail.” The term had its roots in 1984 with the illustrious bailout of Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company. The catchphrase was an earlier manifestation, and even with the 1984 fiasco, few understood what the consequences would be on the financial markets until 2009, the worsening time of the then-current financial crisis.
The events of 2009 to 2020 are telling the value of the argument – Fear is good.
February: Congress approved the $787 billion economic stimulus package. It boosted economic growth by granting $288 billion in tax cuts, $224 billion in unemployment benefits, and $275 billion for "shovel-ready" public works. It also included a $2,500 college tuition tax credit, an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers, and a deduction of sales tax on new car purchases.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act extended unemployment benefits and suspension of taxes on those benefits through 2009. It provided $54 billion in tax write-offs for small businesses. It was the fiscal stimulus that ended the Great Recession.
Obama announced a $75 billion plan to help stop foreclosures. The Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan were designed to help the 7 million to 9 million homeowners avoid foreclosure by restructuring or refinancing their mortgage before they got behind in their payments. HASP provided a $1,000-a-year principal payment for borrowers who stayed current on the loan. It was paid out of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis’s final report revised its U.S. gross domestic product growth rate for the fourth quarter of 2008 to a negative 6.3%. That was worse than the 3.8% drop it reported in its advance report. It was also the worst slowdown since Q1 1982 when GDP fell 6.1%. The recession caused demand to slump. Economic growth for all of 2008 was an anemic -0.1%.
April: The Making Homes Affordable Program was launched to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. The Homeowner Affordable Refinance Program is one of its programs. It was designed to stimulate the housing market by allowing up to 2 million credit-worthy homeowners who were upside-down in their homes to refinance, taking advantage of lower mortgage rates.
The Obama administration introduced HARP in April 2009. By 2016, the program had helped more than 3.3 million people.
October: The unemployment rate rose to 10% in October 2009, the worst since the 1982 recession. Almost 6 million jobs were lost in the 12 months prior period. Employers added temporary workers, too cautious about the economy to add full-time employees.
The “too big to fail” events of 2009 set the stage for the longest bull market in history.
The 2010-2019 period happened because fear had been compromised and reduced in the decision equation, which underpins the financial markets. Without fear, values become unrealistic and only justified by the absurdity of creative opinions by “experts,” academic papers featuring a “new financial math” to calculate and justify inflated values, or the noise from the financial media. By the end of 2019, the S&P 500 was up a whopping 370%, while taking into account reinvested dividends, to generate a net return of 490%.
Monetary and fiscal policies by the federal government from 2009 to 2019 did not justify the unprecedented intangible values of the United States financial markets.
The conclusion was simple: Fear was marginalized and reduced to a spectator. All money, but especially big money in the stock market, had a federal put under stock values, supporting prices and instilling the mentality of “too big to fail” as a financial and acceptable political business model to “guarantee against losses” of the investible dollar in the stock market.
To underscore and justify these conclusions that fear no longer functions as a true counterbalance to greed, a unique opportunity occurred in 2020.
In March when the COVID-19 outbreak mushroomed, stock market prices nosedived with such fear that the end was near. Stocks were perpetual sinkholes. Then, monetary, and fiscal policies by the federal government applied “too big to fail” rules by pouring in trillions of dollars. By September 2, 2020, the stock market as recorded by the S&P 500 Index hit an all-time high. Most “experts” were confused by the event, claiming it seemed irrational.
Why would the stock market shoot up like a rocket when 19,593,565 people are infected with COVID-19?
Financial experts and the other kind presented answers that were little more than a guess. New financial math had to be conceived. The pundits responded not to the total number of infected or dead, but instead the latest belief that a cure will happen sooner than later. Many specialists designed formulas to claim the future outbreak trajectory was worse or better than previously expected. Stock prices were merely following the trend made by guesswork.
The quote proves the point: “Markets decline when there’s unexpectedly bad news and rise when there’s unexpectedly good news,” says Peter Schott, professor of international economics at Yale University.
That’s like saying - It doesn’t matter what the news is, as long as it is news.
True: Markets are forward-looking and predictable. Computer models show this, especially subjective probability configurations.
True: Changes in consumer habits have modified certain business models. Scoring the highest stock performance during the pandemic are - delivery services businesses, online tutoring, grocery stores, game providers/sellers, cleaning services, beer, wine and liquor stores, meal prep delivery companies, freelance services, fitness equipment companies, drive-in movie theaters, social network sites, computer hardware, software companies, and network providers supporting the above.
True: Free money in the stock market from “new” money created from government bailouts added to overall market liquidity.
True: The promise of more government bailouts.
The noise was predicting – “Greed is good,” especially when FEAR has been reduced to a spectator and not relevant in its role as a counterbalance to greed.
Famously said by actor Michael Douglas by his character Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, “Greed” is good speech.
What I say, “Greed is better when fear is a partner.”
The United States financial markets, which represent 59% of the global market appear to be the rider of a motorcycle with one invisible wheel. By marginalizing fear the rider cannot remain in motion. Fear must be equally viable with greed.