The president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, Navayana Kocherlakota, recently published a paper in which he argues that government guarantees helped fuel the bubble in real estate. While his paper was largely aimed at prescribing solutions to this problem, it raises the question: What other bubbles are lurking out there in the global economy? We asked several experts and to our surprise, they had a long list:
1. Gold. The price of gold bullion has risen from $294 an ounce in 1998 to $1,404 today, an increase of 377%. "It's the biggest, baddest bubble of them all," says Robert Wiedemer, author of Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown. Gold has no intrinsic value. A telltale indicator that gold is a bubble: incessant cocktail party chatter about buying gold and endless TV commercials offering to buy gold jewelry. The SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD) is up 28% since the beginning of the year.
2. Real estate in China. Chinese real estate prices are up only 9.1% this year, which may seem more frothy than bubbly. But rising prices are generating rising demand, which is a clear sign of a bubble, says Vikram Mansharamani, whose book, Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst, will be published early next year. The participation of amateur investors like waiters and maids in the property boom is a clear sign of a property bubble in China. The fact that developers are building more apartments than there are buyers is another giveaway.
3. Alternative energy. Solar technology is still uneconomic, yet governments all over the world are subsidizing solar energy firms. "There are plenty of people who shouldn't be in the solar energy industry who are," says Mansharamani. Do we really need 250 venture-capital-backed solar cell companies? The Market Sectors Solar Energy ETF (KWT) had a 100% gain this year, before dropping back.
4. Commodities. Blame it on the weather, China or the Fed, but commodities have shot higher in recent months. Wheat is up 60% this year, and other food commodities like corn have also risen dramatically. "The focus is on the food category for bubbles," says Wiedemer, but industrial metals like copper are also very frothy.
5. Apple (AAPL). OK, everybody loves their iPad and iPhone (except if they live in New York or San Francisco, where signal strength is a problem). But Apple shares are up 1,200% since 2001, which has to come close to being the definition of a bubble. "Apple is a high-fashion company," says Wiedemer. "If CEO Steve Jobs either leaves or dies, I think they will have trouble maintaining that incredible fashion sense, and as such it's time will go," he says.
7. Emerging market stocks. As an asset class, these shares have risen 146% in the past two years. "We're only halfway along the way to a gigantic eventual bubble in the emerging markets," says Barton Biggs, the former Morgan Stanley Asset Management chairman who accurately predicted the U.S. stock market bubble in the late 1990s. These countries, such as Indonesia, Australia, Russia and Brazil, are growing wildly even though there's no growth in the world economy. Much of their gains is backed by commodity prices, which are also a bubble (see item No. 4). "I have every reason to believe this will turn into a bubble," says Mansharamani.
8. Small tech companies. It's only been a decade since the tech bubble burst, but cash-rich large tech companies are gobbling up smaller firms without regard to price. For example, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) got into a bidding war with Dell (DELL) over computer storage company 3Par and ended up paying a whopping $2.4 billion, 325 times the firm's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
9.The U.S. dollar. Although the dollar is down 10% against the euro so far this year, Wiedemer believes the greenback is firmly in bubble territory. He believes it will pop when foreigners stop buying U.S. assets such as stocks and bonds. "Foreigners say, 'I'm worried about inflation -- you're going to pay me back in dollars worth less than when I invested'." While China may hold its dollar bonds forever, he says, pension funds in Japan and insurance companies in Europe will start dumping dollars as U.S. inflation climbs.
10. U.S. government debt. "When this bubble pops you're out of bubbles -- nothing is too big to fail any more," says Wiedemer. The debt bubble is growing very rapidly and will continue to grow, he says. Basically, there's no way the U.S. government can ever pay back the $13.7 trillion it currently owes (mainly to foreigners), and eventually they will stop buying. The bubble pops when the government has trouble selling its debt -- just like Ireland and Greece are experiencing at the moment. Instead of borrowing money, the government starts printing money, which is what's happening now. The Fed's balance sheet has gone from $800 billion in 2008 to $2.2 trillion, and the central bank just announced it was printing another $600 billion. Says Wiedemer: "The medicine starts to become poison."
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