Facebook & the Bubble Mentality

So Facebook keeps falling, and is now floating around the $27 mark.  We’re a third of the way down to my IPO valuation of FB as worth roughly $2-4 a share (or 5-10 times earnings), although I wouldn’t be surprised for the market to stabilise at a higher price (at least until the next earnings figures come out and reveal — shock horror — that Facebook is terrible at making money).

The really stunning thing is that even after all these falls, FB is still trading at 86 times earnings. What the hell did Morgan Stanley think they were doing valuing an IPO without any viable profit model at over 100 times earnings? The answer is that this was an exit strategy. This IPO was about the people who got in early passing on a stick of dynamite to a greater fool which incidentally is precisely the same bubble mentality business model as bond investors who are currently buying negative-real-yielding treasuries at 1.6% hoping to pass them onto a greater fool at 0.5% (good luck with that).

This was achieved by convincing investors to ignore actual earnings and instead focus on projected future earnings. From Bloomberg:

Facebook, with a market capitalization of $79.1 billion, is trading at 29.5 times the company’s projected 2014 profit of $2.69 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Or much more simply, counting chickens before they hatch.

There’s an interesting comparison to the development of AAPL. Steve Jobs — who went on to do great things — was never fully in charge of AAPL until much later on. AAPL externally recruited CEOs with business experience, and Jobs was eventually thrust out of the company he founded, to continue his journey on his own. Failure is a really valuable lesson. Jobs was lucky to experience it and learn from it early before he ever got a chance to destroy AAPL.

FB isn’t really a bad business, and prospects would look much rosier if it were priced more realistically. It’s generating a profit — just a much smaller one than suggested by the IPO pricing. And management are being swept along by everyone else’s irrational euphoria. Zuckerberg can freely throw away a whole year’s earnings buying Instagram — an App whose functionality FB actually duplicated in-house almost certainly for a tiny fraction of the cash thrown at Instagram. And Zuckerberg — who controls a majority of the voting rights — isn’t going to get thrust out into the cold by shareholders. He can keep wildly throwing cash around so long as it keeps flowing into FB. The problem is, given the steep price falls, it looks like the river is running dry.

As I wrote before FB started falling:

The big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

That’s life. Bubbles get burst; the Madoff bubble, the securitisation bubble, the NASDAQ bubble, the housing bubble, the Facebook bubble, the treasury bubble. The trick is not getting swept up by the irrational euphoria. Better to miss a blow-out top than to end up holding a stick of dynamite.

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The Treasury Bubble in One Graph

What are the classic signs of an asset bubble? People piling into an asset class to such an extent that it becomes unprofitable to do so.

Treasury bonds are so overbought that they are now producing negative real yields (yield minus inflation):


That’s right, after taking into account inflation, many investors in treasuries are standing over a drain and pouring their money down it. 

And so America’s creditors are now getting slapped quite heavily in the mouth by the Fed’s easy money inflationist policies.

I propose (much, I am sure, to the consternation of the monetarist-Keynesian “print money and watch your problems evaporate” establishment) that this is a very, very, very dangerous position. And I propose that those economists who are calling for even greater inflation are playing with dynamite.

See, while the establishment seems to largely believe that the negative return on treasuries will juice up the American economy — in other words that “hoarders” will stop hoarding and start spending — I believe that negative side-effects from these policies may cause severe harm.

There is the danger of a bursting treasury bubble. What would happen if America’s creditors decide they want to liquidate their positions? After all, they’re getting slapped in the mouth , and the Fed is promising to continue with the zero interest rate policy until at least 2014.

And we know for sure that even before real rates on treasuries turned negative that China were selling:

The Fed has been picking up the slack, and will have to continue to do so for the forseeable future (the private domestic and international markets have no reason to increase purchases assets of with a negative real rate of return).

This means that to keep the Treasury’s interest payments low, the Fed will have to start printing more money, which brings us to the second danger: the danger of runaway inflation.

Bernanke might well believe he can do this without triggering runaway inflation. He might point to his track record of tripling the monetary base without triggering hyperinflation.

But inflation has stayed (relatively) low for one reason: the money he printed isn’t circulating. The primary dealer banks are holding the money as excess reserves. Can this last?

I doubt it. As I noted last month:

So, does the accumulation of excess reserves lead to inflation?

Only so much as the frequentation of brothels leads to chlamydia and syphilis.

Excess reserves are only non-inflationary so long as the banks — the people holding the reserves — play along with the Fed-Treasury game of monetising debt and trying to hide the inflation . The banks don’t have to lend these reserves out, just as having sex with hookers doesn’t have to lead to an infection.

But eventually — so long as you do it enough — the condom will break.

This trend of amassing excess reserves (done, lest we forget, as a stability measure to protect primary dealers against another shadow banking collapse) is closer to going to sleep upon a bed of dynamite. 

But inflation is only the most obvious risk.

The greatest danger is illustrated here:

America — for most of last century exporter and creditor to the world now runs the biggest trade deficits the world has ever seen.

Let’s not forget that these creditors that U.S. monetary policy is now slapping in the face produce most of our consumption, much of our military hardware, and most of our oil

Of course, many neocons seem to believe that this position is sustainable; that America can slap her creditors in the face all she likes because she has thermonuclear weapons and can tell the rest of the world to go and bite the big one.

Not so fast.

As VeteransToday noted in December:

“Surprise, Surprise, Surprise”,  to quote Gomer Pyle. The secret spy mission to create photographic proof of Iranian nuclear intentions has gone horribly wrong.

China is the country of origin for many, many of the semiconductors used by the US Military. It was most likely that China provided the hardware with the secret backdoor that allowed the Iranians to seize control of the Stealth drone while the drone was on a secret CIA mission over Iran.

Working together, they captured a state of the art US Military stealth aircraft.

What this means to all US Military personnel serving anywhere in the world? It means that control of any electronics system in any type of platform, can be seized and used against the military that launched it.

I don’t doubt America still has great technological and infrastructural advantages over her Eurasian creditor rivals. But do we really want to test the limits of our power? Do we really want to try and provoke a trade war with China and the other Eurasian nations (who of course are testing the petrodollar reserve to its limits by creating their own reserve currency agreements) by obliterating the value of their dollar-denominated assets?

So now we know, beyond a shadow of doubt that U.S. Treasuries are in a historic bubble.

We know that to some degree the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke are guilty of stoking up this program by buying U.S. Treasuries (artificial demand) and thus constricting supply. We know that this is screwing America’s creditors who happen to produce a lot of America’s consumption, components, military hardware, energy and resources. We know that these nations are using increasingly violent rhetoric regarding their relationship with the United States (Putin for instance described America as a parasite), and are activating agreements to ditch the dollar as the reserve currency.

Do we really want to continue in this vein? Do we really want to continue screwing our creditors by forcing them to accept negative real rates on their investments? Do we really want to risk the inflationary impact of continuing to print money to monetise debt (and hiding the money in excess reserves, thereby temporarily hiding the inflation). Do we really want to find out if all those Chinese semiconductors in our military hardware have backdoors that allow America’s enemies to shut down American military hardware?

I’d call that playing dice with the devil.