Bubbles are easy to discern, despite the Fed’s rhetoric that bubbles cannot be discerned. What’s hard is pinpointing the moment they top out. But that’s precisely what everyone wants to know: make tons of easy money as the bubble is inflating, then cash out at the top before it implodes.
But there is no scientific measure to time this right. Bubbles are consensual hallucinations that go on for a lot longer than anyone, afterwards, thought possible. And they implode when investors suddenly come out of it.
So lacking reliable scientific indicators of when to get out, everyone has their own list of ersatz indicators. It may be when an Uber driver gives you must-buy stock tips. Or it may be when a 22-year old in a retail job is flipping homes sight-unseen in his or her spare time. I overheard someone discussing such a deal via cellphone at an airport in early 2005 and knew we were getting very, very close to the top of the housing bubble. But the top would still be a year away.
Turns out, those indicators almost always get the most crucial element wrong: timing.
Nevertheless, I now have a new indicator for my official the-top-is-in list, and this one concerns the startup and IPO bubble: Banana Republic’s “Startup Guy” look. You just can’t make this up!
The poor chap was at the bottom (!) of a promotional email Banana Republic sent to its email subscribers. On top were the Corporate Guy in a Banana-Republic suit, suede shoes, and no socks and the Creative Guy who’s trying to look like Steve Jobs minus the cool and the jeans.
Turns out the Startup Guy is wearing a “tailored Slim-Fit Soft-Wash Gingham Shirt,” a “Fulton Skinny-Fit pant,” no socks, and suede shoes. It could be, theoretically speaking, that there is a startup guy running around dressed this way; startup guys wear just about anything imaginable – except suit and tie, though I’ve seen it happen too: a guy who never wears a suit and who you didn’t even think owned a suit suddenly shows up in a suit. Maybe his mother-in-law is in town, or maybe he is trying to sell something to IBM.
People who work at startups, particularly the founders, the real startup guys and girls – for the moment, let’s not even imagine what Banana Republic’s Startup Girl look would entail – have other things to worry about than what Banana Republic tells them to wear.
If they were conformists looking to do whatever everyone else is doing, they most likely wouldn’t have started their outfits with their own blood, sweat, and tears. They’re mostly nonconformists with their own ideas about how to run a business, how to design a better mousetrap, how to market something more effectively, for better or worse.
That the whole startup exuberance – the media circus about soaring IPOs, the insanely valued buyouts by corporate America of tiny outfits with nearly no sales, the resulting “instant” billionaires – has been turned into a line of clothing called Startup Guy by multinational corporation Gap whose number crunchers think there is enough exuberance out there to sell this Startup Guy look to millions of non-startup guys – that’s the market they’re after, not the smallish number of real startup guys – that whole syndrome is my new indicator of a startup-bubble top.
But even that elegant indicator probably gets the most important element wrong: timing.
And exuberance it is. In the startup epicenter San Francisco, home prices hit a slick $1,000,000, while soaring office rents blow up enterprises with real business models. It’s crazy. It’s powered by hot money from around the world. Then comes the moment when the hot money evaporates. Read…. How the Surge of Hot Money Pushes San Francisco to the Brink