Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Irrational Exuberance

It’s been 19 years since Robert Shiller wrote Irrational Exuberance at the peak of the dot-com stock boom. I decided to give it a read to see if it teaches any enduring lessons.

Don’t be fooled by the title into thinking this is a book full of entertaining stories about investor excesses. It’s largely an academic work that lulled me to sleep more than once. It takes a deep look at what defines a stock market bubble and what factors led to the then current high stock price levels.

As an example of the author’s “playfulness,” he described Dilbert as a comic strip “which dwells on petty labor-management conflicts in the new era economy.”

The discussion throughout the book is very thoughtful and thorough, but like much of macroeconomics, it’s hard to say anything definitive. If we raise interest rates, it might help, or might hurt; it’s hard to tell.

A few of the book’s details caught my attention. At the time, inflation-indexed bonds paid 4% above inflation. I’d love to be able to buy such bonds today. Current yields are much lower.

The author claimed that Y2K bug worries proved “groundless.” It’s true that the media and Y2K consultants played up the potential risks, but we had few problems as we reached the year 2000 because of the tremendous effort that went into fixing the bugs. Calling the Y2K fears groundless is like saying concerns about a crumbling bridge proved groundless after the bridge was replaced.

Shiller calls for Social Security benefits to be indexed by per capita national income rather than by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is an interesting idea. It would allow seniors to keep up with the average standard of living rather than allow them to keep buying the same basket of goods. However, this might put even more pressure on Social Security as baby boomers age.

At the end of the book Shiller offers some recommendations. People should diversify away from heavy stock allocations. He calls for the creation of new markets such as single-family-homes futures and S&P 500 dividend futures. He believes such markets would allow people to sensibly hedge some of their risks.

I suspect this book would be mainly valuable to someone looking for a head start in gathering ideas for an academic study of the current bull market.

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