Are You the Fool at The Table?

My friend Ben Horowitz and I debate the tech bubble in The Economist. This post is the “rebuttal” statement to Ben’s opening comments.
An edited version of this post originally appeared as part 2 of 3.  Part 1 is here.
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You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold them
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
Kenny Rogers – The Gambler

My esteemed colleague Ben Horowitz essentially makes four arguments: 1) look at how relatively cheap Apple, Google and Amazon stock is compared to their growth; 2) Major technology cycles tend to be around 25 years long with the bulk of the purchases occurring in the last five-to-ten years. The major adoption wave for the Internet technology platform will hit in the next 8 years; 3) the economics of building Internet businesses has changed; 4) the markets are much bigger.

Therefore Ben concludes that boom is coming…and do you want to miss it because it has the possibility of becoming a bubble?

If this were a magic act, we’d suggest that Ben’s arguments are misdirection. To answer the question before the house, “Are we in a tech bubble?” Ben offers that as Apple, Google and Amazon survived the dot.com crash, we can ignore the fate of the thousands of failed public and private dot.com companies when the bubble burst in March of 2000. I believe the issue isn’t whether we’re on a 25-year tech cycle or that the next 8 years are really going to be great. The issue is whether the next 100+ tech IPO’s carried by this bubble will be worth their offering price in 8 years.

One of the least understood parts of a bubble is that there are five types of participants: Smart Money, the Shills, the Marks, the True Believers and the Promoters. Understanding the motivations of these different groups help make sense out of the bubble chart below.

Smart Money are prescient angel investors and Venture Capitalists who started investing in social networks, consumer and mobile applications and the cloud 3, 4 or 5 years ago. They helped build these struggling ventures into the Facebooks’, Twitters’, and Zyngas’ before anyone else appreciated these companies could have hundreds of millions of users with off-the-chart revenue and profits.

In a bubble the smart money doubles down on their investment in the awareness phase, but when it starts becoming a mania – the smart money cashes out. (Really smart money recognizes it’s a bubble and bets against it.) They manage this all with knowledge of the game they’re playing, but they don’t hype it, talk about it or fan the flames. They know others will.

The Shills are the middlemen in a bubble. They profit from the boom times. They’re the mortgage brokers and real estate agents in the housing bubble, the investment bankers and technology press in the dot.com bubble.  Since it’s in their interest to keep the bubble going, they’ll tell you that housing always goes up, that these bonds are guaranteed by a big bank, and that this tech stock is worth its opening price. All the stories peddled by Shills have at their heart why “it’s a new age” and why “all the old ways of measuring value are obsolete.” And why “you’ll be an idiot if you don’t jump in and reap the rewards and cash out.”

The Marks are your neighbors or parents or grandparents. They’re not domain experts. They know nothing about real estate, financial markets or tech stocks, but they don’t want to miss the  “investment opportunity of a lifetime”.  They hear reassurance from the Shills and take their advice at face value, never asking or questioning the Shills financial incentives to sell you this house/mortgage/tech stock.  They see others making extraordinary amounts of money at the start of the mania (just buy a condo or two and you can sell them in six months.) What no one tells the Marks is that as they’re buying, the smart money and institutional investors are quietly pulling out and selling their assets.

The True Believers don’t financially participate in the bubble like the Marks (lack of assets, timidity, or time) but they could if they would. They have no rational evidence to believe, but for them it’s a “faith-based” belief. By their numbers they give comfort to the Mark’s around them.

The Promoters are the ones who keep the bubbles inflated even when they know that the asset exceeds its fundamental value by a large margin. While Shills have no credibility, Promoters have “brand-name” credibility that makes the Marks trust them. What makes the role of the Promoter egregious is that they are a small subset of the Smart Money. They loudly tell the Marks and Shills that everything is just fine, enticing them to buy into the bubble, even as the Promoters are liquidating their own positions.

Investment banks who sold CDO’s (synthetic collateralized debt obligations,) in the financial meltdown and the mortgage lenders in the housing bubble are just two examples. Some investment banks actually bet that the very investments they were selling their customers would fail. There’s a special place in hell waiting for these guys (only because our political and financial regulatory system won’t deal with them while they’re on earth.)

To support his position Ben used a quote from Warren Buffett I wish I had found, “The only way you get a bubble is when a very high percentage of the population buys into some originally sound premise…that becomes distorted as time passes and people forget the original sound premise and start focusing solely on the price action…

The “facts” that Ben raises, “the size and scale of these new markets have never been seen before; some of these applications and companies will reach billions of customers, generate unprecedented revenues and profits,” are likely true. But they don’t support his justification of the bubble valuations we are seeing for companies filing for IPO’s (Pandora Media just priced its IPO at $2.6 billion dollars while admitting it will have operating losses through the end of fiscal 2012.)  But to support his position for future valuations Ben lists the low price/earnings ratios of Apple, Amazon, Google, Salesforce.com.  He argues that if we are in a bubble these companies ought to have their prices inflated as well.

It turns out that’s not how a bubble works. Bubbles attract Marks and Shills to new shiny toys, not existing ones…, Apple, Amazon, et al are not the current objects of desire of this bubble. The question is, are we in a new tech bubble? Do the new wave of social/web/mobile/cloud companies going public have valuations which exceeds their fundamental value by a large margin? (today and in the foreseeable future.)

In other words, “would you want your mother to buy these stocks to hold them – or flip them?”

Every bubble is a big-stakes game – played for keeps. In it the usual cast of characters appear; the Smart Money, the Shills, the Marks and the Promoters.

There’s a saying in Poker, “If you can’t figure out who the Mark is at the table, it’s you.”
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

16 Responses

  1. Strangely I find myself agreeing with both your points of view.

    I think Warren Buffett’s quote is only partly right also. A bubble is also about plenty of good money chasing dumb ideas. Some of these ideas may have started out smart but perhaps failed to pivot and learn. In any event they become dumb. Of course huge amounts of money on a bad idea is double trouble – more money gets attracted to it and it is still a bad idea.

    I agree that we are seeing some bubbles around some dumb ideas, but the space is very vibrant and some sound ideas are rightly valued (twitter for example). Also I agree that the established names is not where the action is. Unless the Apples and Amazons bring a whole new totally game changing product/service (and I’m talking unknown unknowns now) – the market won’t move beyond its established range. We have come to expect certain behaviours from these behemoths. It is the young whippersnappers that bring unpredictability.

    So, I don’t agree that it is a new ‘tech bubble’ which (IMO) implies it is widespread.

    If it were a tech bubble, what is new about that – or even bad? It is simply another act in the eternal exchange of fortunes. Been going on for years! There are always winners and losers.

    I will think some more about this, thank you for getting the cells cranking.

  2. A must read for everybody considering to participate in the upcoming wave of IPOs. It would be interesting to see statistics on how many of the 2004-2007 IT investors cashed out (fully or in part) in 2010-2011 so far but are still promoting the “it’s not a bubble” story. We know that the big early investors at Facebook, Groupon & Co are pulling out their money already but some industry-wide analysis would be nice quantitative support for your argument.

  3. All these companies will wane in two to four years. Mark well!

  4. You left out one participant – the Gambler. He is a retail investor, shoveling money in along with the Marks. But he knows this is all stupid and is just going along for the ride, thinking he can cash out to an unsuspecting Mark at an even dumber valuation.

    Since they’re knowledgable, they act (often unintentionally) as a Promoter, but only to their relatively small circle of influence. But they are numerous… I would argue they have the most impact on the Marks – it’s the guy you know who’s getting rich playing the market, not some Jim Cramer on TV.

  5. I would rather be in a technology, alternative energy bubble, or medical device bubble than a commodities or housing bubble any day of the week. At least you can choose if you want to participate or not…

    Also isn’t this a little extreme if I want to comment via twitter:

    Read Tweets from your timeline.
    See who you follow, and follow new people.
    Update your profile.
    Post Tweets for you.
    Access your direct messages until June 30th, 2011.

  6. Not to put too fine a point on it but at a P/E around 400 salesforce.com IS the bubble.

  7. how could someone “bet against it”?? I’m curious as to what would benefit from a tech bubble bursting. Anyone have experience from the past bubble?

  8. Hey Brian,

    You can “short” stocks which is a bet that they will go down. Once you understand this a lot of the negative media you see makes more sense. This article is however excellent in its background of bubbles, and is not typical of negative media, this is more often found on TV.

  9. There is also an iceberg factor.
    Grandma uses the Facebook over her AOL link. My company uses Salesforce.com. My friend got a job through LinkedIn. Because there is a visible contact point for these companies, investors feel like they know the companies, and the market. That is not what Warren Buffet meant when he said he needs to “know” about an industry. Only a small piece is visible, but most of the truth is hidden under the water.

    Read the latest Launch newsletter from Jason Calacanis. He has a great point about a huge difference this time around. There are now markets to trade companies before the IPO. The Secondary markets are a game changer, and the Smart Money is not waiting for the IPO to take money off the table.

    The small investor really has no chance.

  10. [...] Are You the Fool at The Table? My friend Ben Horowitz and I debate the tech bubble in The Economist. This post is the “rebuttal” statement to Ben’s [...] [...]

  11. Someone did say that Buffet says to sell when the original premise is no longer relevant to the current scenario. “No longer relevant” here probably meant ideas became obsolete or dumb aka not feasible.

  12. Dear Steve,

    Thanks for the link and post. Great lessons to be learned, again you show why so many follow you and learn from you and your experience. Particularly true and often ignored or dismissed by many is the quote from Kenny’s song: so true and yet so simple…great post indeed !
    We look forward to having you back in Chile, especially at PUC where you have several friends and followers…

    Cheers,
    Franco. Fdo. Yanine

  13. There is a little thing that is forgotten: The Average low price/earnings ratios of Apple, Amazon, Google when the Fed is printing free money to Wall Street with Q1 and Q2 is going to be different to the average when Q2 ends(30th June) and there is no free money anymore.

    That is, if there is an oversupply of money, inflation on stock prices come. We get used to some value as we think 0% interest rates(only to the banks, that will “invest” on stock as real economy is “too risky” for them) are normal, while it is extremely unusual for the economy.

    If Greece goes bankrupt, it is Lehman brothers II, forget about P/E values of 13,7 even. It happened in Japan before with the 0%interest rate(and both housing and stock bubble).

  14. The democratization of entrepreneurship goes in parallel with democratizing access to early stage funding… that’s a proposed solution… http://bit.ly/l8PoSa

  15. So what currency is this latest tech bubble in?

    For investors, that may be the most important question.

    For technologist, bubbles don’t matter cause there is so much off the hook technology in the pipeline that we are going to turn the world upside down, for the better, in spite of wall street.

    -Uno

  16. The thing about any bubble few people have the incentive to acknowledge we are in one. While the music is playing everyone’s incentive is to keep dancing. This time around I’d personally stay away from being a party pooper, but then I am not retired yet to afford being one!

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