Some people believe the Reddit gang bidding up meme stocks like AMC won’t lead to ruin for themselves and that the movement is a positive thing for investing overall.
They are claiming once again that “this time is different.” In 37 years, I have heard that terrifying refrain all too many times.
The current argument goes something like this: The legion of new, young and more aggressive stock, commodity and crypto-traders are more astute, better capitalized and better educated than their condo-flipping counterparts in 2007 or the legion of “motley fools” who day-traded internet stocks in 1999. They’re brighter than those who participated in the “mutual fund mania” of the late 1960s or the poor souls who walked into “bucket shops” off the street in 1929, and there is simply no comparison to what’s happening today.
I can’t say this more plainly: This time is absolutely 1,000% not different and the reasoning of many claiming it is, is fatally flawed.
What’s going on among Robinhood traders, members of the so-called “Reddit Rebellion,” is rank speculation. I think we can admit as much.
Some suggest these traders are more sophisticated because they are trading options and that new innovations like commission-free trading and technologies allow these individuals to level the playing field with the pros.
I’m not sure that understanding implied volatility is the driving force behind most of the meme stocks today. Momentum and the lure of easy money may well be.
They also suggest that commission-free trading, tighter bid-ask spreads and new technologies level the playing field in this particular period.
None of this is new, either.
All of those elements are common to prior speculative episodes from the telegraph, to the telephone, to the ticker, to the computer, and from the deregulation of brokerage fees, discount brokers, newsletter writers who moved markets. There’s nothing new to see here.
Historically, these varied and various inducements provide short-lived opportunities.
It was true for nearly five years during the internet bubble that lasted from the late 1990s until early 2000.
The housing bubble took a similar number of years to inflate and then crash.
The mutual fund mania of the 1960s lasted about three years before the market topped out and subsequently moved sideways for roughly 18 years.
The early ’70s were home to the “nifty 50” stocks that invited a great deal of retail participation. Very few of those 50 are still nifty.
The “roaring 20’s” bull market lasted until 1929 before a spectacular crash ensued.
Individuals who literally walked in off the street and “day-traded” stocks in Wall Street bucket shops got wiped out.
And going back further in time, brilliant individuals like Isaac Newton, for instance lost a fortune in the “South Sea Bubble.”
The brilliant physicist found out that gravity is also a force in the financial markets.
French investors were wiped out in the “Mississippi Scheme,” which along with the “South Sea Bubble,” fooled 18th century day-traders, just as the oft-cited Dutch “tulip mania” did in the 1630s.
I am not condescending to the individual investor or trader. I am warning them.
This episode may well go on for some time to come. But, when policies change — be they regulatory, fiscal or most important, monetary — the game will change.
There’s always a wrinkle in each epic speculative episode that makes it appear that “this time is different.”
Put simply, it’s not.
—Ron Insana is a CNBC contributor and a senior advisor at Schroders.
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