Caught In The Webb

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Why We’re Definitely in a Bubble

A thoughtful dialectic with our esteemed columnist on why we’re in a social/media bubble.

Why I think we are confused.

So what the hell? Seed stage bubble, rationality at Series A, then bubble again in “momentum.” Bubbles can be good. It’s gambling but it’s not. WHY DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER? It is easy to get confused. And here, I think, I would like to introduce some new factors into the debate.

We’re carrying baggage from last time

Many debates refer to “1999 style bubble.” NASDAQ insanity. Billions (Trillions?) of dollars vaporized. Our parent’s savings decimated. The dream of the internet halted. It hangs heavy over all of us. Many of us learned about bubbles for the first time (for my part, dating a Texan in college, my first real world experience, after studying bubbles in college, was the late 1980’s Texan real estate bubble). Much of our understanding of bubbles comes from NASDAQ’s rise and fall. The layoffs. The irrational exuberance. We are attempting to pattern-match.

But what if we are pattern-matching only the trappings of the bubble. We’re trying to avoid repeating our past mistakes. We speak of revenue in companies, though it is economically irrelevant to a bubble. Investor Dave McClure sums this line of thinking up when he says “there is SUBSTANTIAL revenue and even profits being generated by a much larger # of companies than ever before.”

We talk about P/E ratios of public companies. Ditto. We talk about how the economy as a whole is depressed, NASDAQ isn’t rising to the stratosphere. Though we felt and remember these things viscerally, they are all irrelevant to economic theory. We are addressing old criticisms when debating a current topic.

We also use the word “Bubble” to talk about all the cultural ridiculousness from the dot com era. Stupid parties. Bankers as tech moguls. 12-year-old founders. There was a lot of silliness in the dotcom era, and some of that silliness is happening now. This is neither evidence of a bubble or evidence against. But boy, does it bring back bad memories.

When we debate what’s actually going on, now, however, we must strive to remove all of that from our thinking.

Some people have an interest in milking it

I don’t want to spend too much time on this one. It’s tacky. And I don’t want to attack anyone personally. But remember: many people, including myself, are heavily invested in this trajectory continuing for a good long while, and getting a ton of these companies to IPO. Would a newspaper man be impartial talking about whether the newspapers are dying or not? Would a screen printer have an impartial opinion on desktop publishing? I’m not interested in going ad hominem, but there exists a substantial economic body of work around economic signaling and markets.

It’s early in the bubble

In his recent presentation, the multitude of slides Blodget shows of industry trends now vs. the dotcom bubble look, on first blush, as if they are different. The massive, spiraling peak we see in any chart of a bubble, ex post facto, hasn’t occurred yet. Yet if you look at 1997-1999 and compare it to 2010-2012, they are eerily similar. Bubbles start, grow, peak, and bust. That whole cycle is a bubble, regardless of where you are on it. Is this bubble early? Late? I’d probably wager we’re maybe a year or two in and it’ll peak in 2 or 3 more. But it doesn’t matter. That whole journey is the bubble. And I believe we’re in it now.

Words, words, words.

You’ll notice a lot of people saying “Boom” lately. Blodget, after saying there’s no bubble, throws in the word “boom” at the end of his presentation. MG Seigler starts the Branch.com conversation with “It’s boom times, yes.”

In economics, a bubble consists of a boom, and then a bust. That’s it. Boom sounds nice, boom times, boom boom boom. Booms come with busts. Within a specific industry, booms plus bust equals bubble. End of story as far as economics go.

“Boom times,” the fun one, conjuring images of the wild rest or a factory towns or smiling Wired covers, are associated with the economy as a whole. These booms also go bust, but it’s a longer economic cycle than a bubble, so it sounds less threatening (though paradoxically potentially far more damaging). It’s semantics, and irrelevant to the larger conversation.

There’s not a lot we can do about it

This is, basically, true. There’s probably not much we can do about it, except for talk about it, hence, the endless debate. Matthew Ingram from GigaOm says on the Branch thread “But is cynical gambling behavior in tech or startups any different from what happens in the stock market or any other market every day?”

Gambling comes up often these days when talking about tech. There is substantial economic debate and theory going on about whether the stock market is gambling or not at this point, and it’s an interesting discussion. The strongest traditional argument is that value is created in the stock market, and gabling is zero-sum. This is still probably true (though, again, there is debate about this on a macroeconomic level). Some economists believe that bubbles can create value over the long term (Peres) but they are still bubbles, and there are still losers.

Additionally, sticking to our common definitions of gambling, all this does is reinforce pricing is against intrinsic values.

It may not matter

MG Seigler on Branch says “All boom times end eventually. But calling this a ‘bubble’ implies this time is going to ‘burst’ with far reaching consequences. I just don’t see that.”

This may be rational. Most economists agree that bubbles can cause economic damage and are interested in discovering why they happen. But most economists also agree that there are benefits (Peres, Schumpeter’s “Creative Distruction,”) etc. It’s irrelevant to the “are we in a bubble” debate, but I believe that we all viscerally want to deny being in a bubble because we equate bubbles with the devastation wrought in the dotcom boom and the recent housing market boom, though those levels of devastation are not required for a bubble. Big bubbles take economies down with them. But bubbles don’t have to.

In 2007 or so the English synth pop band Depeche Mode was beginning work on their last album, Sounds of the Universe. By this point in their storied career, Depeche Mode had sold over 100 million albums. Their 8th album had gone platinum in the US and number one in eight major countries. Their 7th had gone triple platinum. They had some cash and they were going to put it into their new record.

Toward that end, Martin L. Gore, the primary songwriter in Depeche Mode, decided that he wanted some new gear. Not new, exactly, but rather old, vintage analog synthesizers (along with a boatload of guitars). And he wanted a lot of them. Said the engineer on the record Luke Smith, “Martin was buying all of the kit he’d ever wanted, along with any new and experimental gizmos that tickled his fancy. We started with a lot of gear, and by the end of the session there was a veritable smorgasbord of devices available to satisfy any palate.” Martin even credited the spree to the sound of the record: “I don’t think we can play down the effect that the parcels arriving every day had on the record.”

He was, to quote musician and analog collector Sean Drinkwater, “buying up every Steiner, EMS and EDP synth in existence.” Anyone shopping for analog synthesizers noticed that many of the Ebay auctions were ending in higher-than-normal prices. The specialist online sales outlets were all sold out, and synth prices skyrocketed. Frenzy ensued, and prices continued to skyrocket. Eventually, Depeche Mode got all the synths they needed, and prices began to decline.

And in the end, unless you were a synthesizer collector, the whole thing did not freakin’ matter one bit.

We learned our lesson last time

Many people believe that the tech sector has been sufficiently chastened and are more careful this time. Dave McClure says “The far greater trend is towards more rational co’s & pricing compared to 10-12 years ago.”

I’m tempted to say, “Irrelevant! Bubbles have strict definitions!” But in actuality, there is some validity for this point of view. Some economists agree. Studies have been performed where “bounded rationality” (the limits of investor’s knowledge) is mitigated over time with learning.⁠1 The studies were done with repeated trades with personally-known participants, but it’s not completely irrational to say that we’ve learned from the past bubble and may not make the same mistakes again. I hope so. It does, however, remain to be seen, and economic theory has not performed similar studies in the real world where people don’t really “know” each other. As an aside, there’s some interesting potential here on what it means to know someone, via social media and blogging, but I digress.

The Sustainability question

On the Branch debate, McClure nails it when he says “the more relevant issues to discuss are: (1) are there companies at incubation, seed, series A/B/C, or pre-IPO being ‘overpriced’ by investors, (2) is that happening at an ‘unsustainable level’ (ie, at some point will it be re-priced lower), and (3) is the trend towards more or less of that occurring now or in the future?”

He concedes points (1) and (3), so (2) is the big one.  Is it sustainable? Right now it can feel that way.

But things are happening.

We’re in a depressed economy, and VC is the one place exhibiting big returns. An analyst friend of mine says that the Instagram deal and the Facebook IPO are causing a frenzy with hedgies and high net worth individuals. And here I must apologize for bringing up Instagram. I agree with Chris Dixon that the Instagram deal is irrelevant to the existence of a bubble, and indeed it was a market price, not a valuation price so economists would agree as well. But the fact is rich dudes not in tech are freaking out over it. They are blown away by the breathtaking speed of wealth creation from the deal – who wouldn’t be? Many people on the Street are saying that that deal turned heads in a way even Facebook hadn’t. More money is coming into tech because of Instagram, whether it evidenced a bubble or not.

So what happens if the JOBS act, Instagram envy, a rebounding economy and the Facebook IPO concoct a perfect storm and cause a giant amount of new capital to flood the VC market?  Will prices stay the same? Or will we see an accelerated upward spiral? Will they still be sustainable then?

Are any of those four things NOT going to happen? We’ll have to see with the Facebook IPO but if all goes according to plan, this bubble could well be kicking into high gear.

We Believe in the Internet

The internet has massive potential. I believe this. We all do. We don’t like to call it a bubble because doing so belittles the transformational power of the internet. It makes the layperson go “Oh, just ignore that, it’s a fad.” The internet is not a fad. I believe that. Anyone in tech believes that. It’s why, despite everything I write here, I continue to invest in early stage internet companies (and, I confess, I may be a bit susceptible to the greater fool theory).

No one wants to beat on their baby. We love the Internet. All this talk of a bubble makes people doubt it. We don’t want people to doubt the Internet. For many of us, it’s the future. We remember people belittling the Internet after the dotcom bust, and it stung. Promise unfulfilled. It is very, very hard for me, at least, to talk about tech being hyped, because I love it so. It requires unrelenting intellectual honesty, and I can’t deny a massive amount of anxiety saying these things when I think about my own overwhelming exposure to tech in my investment portfolio. But I must. It sucks for me to say it, and I am not acting, yet, with my personal investments because of my belief that we are in a bubble, but I should. As much as I hate that. In the end, even though I see it coming, I’m gonna try and time it as much as anyone. Because I love the Internet, and I don’t want to get out.

1 King, Ronald R.; Smith, Vernon L.; Williams, Arlington W. and van Boening, Mark V.
“The Robustness of Bubbles and Crashes in Experimental Stock Markets,” R. H. Day and P.
Chen, Nonlinear Dynamics and Evolutionary Economics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press,
1993,

Follow Rick Webb via RSS.