The core of the problem is that as inflation soared, bond yields fell, creating an instant contradiction: Inflation is poison to bond investors, so they would normally be expected to sell. I have an explanation, but it isn’t perfect.
My take: Investors came to the realization that the huge post-pandemic debt burden will keep rates lower than in the past, while they kept faith that inflation will be manageable. There is little to indicate investors fear a recession-inducing mistake by the Federal Reserve, and they aren’t expecting runaway inflation either.
The market response from March to the start of this month can be thought of as pricing in a repeat of the secular stagnation brought on by the 2008 financial crisis, with the twist of slightly higher inflation than in the past decade.
And there is one more oddity that is far harder to understand: By Aug. 3, yields on 10-year Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, reached minus 1.2%, the lowest point for inflation-adjusted yields in history.
It could only make sense if investors were expecting stagflation, or weak economic growth combined with higher inflation. But if the risk of stagflation were rising, investors should be buying gold — which usually rises when TIPS yields fall — and dumping the junkiest corporate bonds, as defaults would be sure to rise. Instead, the relationship between gold and TIPS broke down, while junk bond yields rose only a little from what had been close to record low spreads over Treasurys.
Stocks come and go, but every year a few tiny companies get promoted to the small-capitalization indexes. Some eventually make it all the way to the S&P 500.
What they don’t do is go in the space of 18 months from being a penny stock with a market value of $39 million to be worth more than a dozen S&P 500 companies, yet that is exactly what FuelCell Energy Inc. has done.
FuelCell isn’t alone. Fourteen members of the Russell Microcap index have risen so much that they ended Thursday larger than the smallest S&P stock. One, real-estate broker eXp World Holdings , has a market capitalization of nearly $10 billion, more than double the smallest S&P stock. When the index reset was announced last year, the largest stock in the index had a market capitalization of $840 million.
The scale of trading in GameStop shares is as extraordinary as the daily gains in price, suggesting widespread disturbance to people’s judgment. On Tuesday, $22 billion of shares changed hands, more than in Apple, the world’s largest company, and double GameStop’s market value. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, called speculative manias “overtrading,” and this is what they look like.
The hope of getting rich is only part of what is inflating the bubble. Mr. Kindleberger argued that speculative manias needed innovative sources of financing, and the private traders on r/WSB have one: the shift last year to make trading in options free on Robinhood and several other platforms.