Investment Bubbles and Frauds Have a Lot in Common

Expensive investor mistakes come in two forms. We can either lose money slowly or quickly. Slow losses are small and compound over time – largely unnoticed – growing into a major cost; these can be through high fees or persistent performance chasing. Rapid losses are far more dramatic and are often a result of us having our investments unnecessarily concentrated in an asset class, fund or scheme that suffers a savage and irrecoverable decline. The most damaging sudden loss scenarios are typically investment bubbles and outright frauds. Although these two phenomena appear distinct, they exploit the same behavioural vulnerabilities. 

An investment fraud is a situation where an individual (or group) makes a deliberate and nefarious attempt to mislead people about the characteristics of an investment for their own benefit. Contrastingly, an investment bubble occurs when there is a crowd delusion about the prospects for a particular security that sees its price detach from its underlying value by a dramatic margin; there may be disreputable individuals seeking to profit from a bubble, but no one person creates it.

Although these appear to be entirely separate episodes, they are deeply entwined. The life of an investment bubble or fraud is predicated on three critical aspects. The story, the performance and the social proof. These operate as a virtuous and vicious circle through the emergence and death of both bubbles and frauds:

Let’s take each element in turn:

Story: The narrative supporting an investment bubble or fraud is the critical underpinning. Stories not only provide a simple and compelling tale about why an investment opportunity is so attractive, they are also an incredibly effective means of disguising complexities and unpleasant realities. Successful stories make us blind to the risks and shortcomings. Tell us a gripping and believable story – one that ends with us making a lot of money – and that is often all we need to hear.

The influence of stories is intensified by the involvement of individuals with charisma. In frauds, they are often the person at the forefront telling the enthralling yarn, while in an investment bubble they are the main protagonists – the people that have already made a fortune and who we want to follow. Powerful storytellers and compelling characters make us even more susceptible to a story.

Performance: Strong past returns are also a vital feature of the most dangerous bubbles and frauds. This works in three ways:

1) It provides validation – we are so biased towards past outcomes that stellar recent performance is taken as a sign that something is being done right – otherwise why would it be working so well?

2) It allows us to extrapolate – we seem ingrained to believe that high returns from the past will continue unabated into the future.

3) It fosters greed – we are attracted to the high, often stratospheric, profits that have been delivered in the past and don’t want to miss out. The performance is far better than we are achieving in our own boring investments.

Social Proof:  The behaviour of other people is also essential in the emergence and persistence of bubbles and frauds. It provokes both confidence and envy. Confidence stems from the idea that there is wisdom in the choices made by other people – this can be particularly true if institutions are involved – it must be okay because those smart people would have done the work. Envy arrives because we see other people making more money than us and cannot help but find it painful.

These three elements feed on each other. A captivating story both boosts performance and corroborates it (the story must be true, haven’t you seen the returns?); while strong performance increases the power of social proof (my friends are making even more money), and new investors becoming involved supports performance. This virtuous circle can be incredibly powerful and self-sustaining. The longer it persists, the more people are drawn in.

The failure of frauds and bubbles occurs when this circle reverts from virtuous to vicious and this can happen suddenly. The catalyst for this shift is impossible to predict. It can be a piece of news or information that punctures the story, or simply a period of poor performance that leads to doubt, scrutiny and, eventually, distress.

Bubbles and frauds not only prey on similar human behaviours, at times they can become one and the same thing. The most perilous situation is when a fraud morphs into a bubble. Here the euphoria that arises around an investment doesn’t lead to the price being detached from reality, but the price being attached to a fantasy.    

For investors this is the worst of all worlds.

I have a book coming out! The Intelligent Fund Investor explores the beliefs and behaviours that lead investors astray, and shows how we can make better decisions. You can find out more here.