I think the effect of bursting of Asset Bubble is most noticed by (may not be most pronounced on) graduating batches of engineering and MBA colleges. The first signs of a burst are always seen in the colleges. Recruiters stop coming to campus, they don't bring any souvenirs for take-away for those who have borne their pre-placement talk, they make token number of recruitments to maintain relationships with campuses, they make excuses of not getting the right candidate for recruiting the token number, etc.I have never been that unlucky to be caught in the time period when the bubble burst. However, once I did get caught in the time period when the economy was recovering from a bubble burst and this year when the bubble was about to burst, and eventually did. I saw my seniors caught in the burst when I was at IIT and now I will be seeing my juniors caught in the burst at IIM. Although, it is not as bad for the people who are caught in the transition phases (recovery or burst), it isn't that good either. The period of flux is very confusing indeed.

I was intrigued by the question of what an asset bubble is even when I was at study engineering. And one can find lot of good articles on the net explaining the concept. Here is a story which explains how a bubble builds up. I couldn't locate the source, though I am sure it must have been written by someone affected by an Asset Bubble. For explanatory purpose, I have embedded an image in between.
Once there was a little island country. The land of this country was the tiny island itself. The total money in circulation was 2 dollar as there were only two pieces of 1 dollar coins circulating around.

1) There were 3 citizens living on this island country. A owned the land. B and C each owned 1 dollar.
2) B decided to purchase the land from A for 1 dollar. So, A and C now each own 1 dollar while B owned a piece of land that is worth 1 dollar. The net asset of the country = 3 dollar.
3) C thought that since there is only one piece of land in the country and land is non produceable asset, its value must definitely go up. So, he borrowed 1 dollar from A and together with his own 1 dollar, he bought the land from B for 2 dollar. A has a loan to C of 1 dollar, so his net asset is 1 dollar. B sold his land and got 2 dollar, so his net asset is 2 dollar. C owned the piece of land worth 2 dollar but with his 1 dollar debt to A, his net asset is 1 dollar. The net asset of the country = 4 dollar.
4) A saw that the land he once owned has risen in value. He regretted selling it. Luckily, he has a 1 dollar loan to C. He then borrowed 2 dollar from B and and acquired the land back from C for 3 dollar. The payment is by 2 dollar cash (which he borrowed) and cancellation of the 1 dollar loan to C. As a result, A now owned a piece of land that is worth 3 dollar. But since he owed B 2 dollar, his net asset is 1 dollar. B loaned 2 dollar to A. So his net asset is 2 dollar. C now has the 2 coins. His net asset is also 2 dollar. The net asset of the country = 5 dollar. A bubble is building up.
(5) B saw that the value of land kept rising. He also wanted to own the land. So he bought the land from A for 4 dollar. The payment is by borrowing 2 dollar from C and cancellation of his 2 dollar loan to A. As a result, A has got his debt cleared and he got the 2 coins. His net asset is 2 dollar. B owned a piece of land that is worth 4 dollar but since he has a debt of 2 dollar with C, his net Asset is 2 dollar. C loaned 2 dollar to B, so his net asset is 2 dollar. The net asset of the country = 6 dollar. Even though, the country has only one piece of land and 2 Dollar in circulation.
(6) Everybody has made money and everybody felt happy and prosperous.
(7) One day an evil wind blowed. An evil thought came to C's mind. "Hey, what if the land price stop going up, how could B repay my loan. There is only 2 dollar in circulation, I think after all the land that B owns is worth at most 1 dollar only." A also thought the same.
(8) Nobody wanted to buy land anymore. In the end, A owns the 2 dollar coins, his net asset is 2 dollar. B owed C 2 dollar and the land he owned which he thought worth 4 dollar is now 1 dollar. His net asset become -1 dollar. C has a loan of 2 dollar to B. But it is a bad debt. Although his net asset is still 2 dollar, his Heart is palpitating. The net asset of the country = 3 dollar again. Who has stolen the 3 dollar from the country?
Of course, before the bubble burst B thought his land worth 4 dollar. Actually, right before the collapse, the net asset of the country was 6 dollar in paper. his net asset is still 2 dollar, his heart is palpitating. The net asset of the country = 3 dollar again.
(9) B had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. C as to relinquish his 2 dollar bad debt to B but in return he acquired the land which is worth 1 dollar now. A owns the 2 coins, his net asset is 2 dollar. B is bankrupt, his net asset is 0 dollar. ( B lost everything ) C got no choice but end up with a land worth only 1 dollar (C lost one dollar) The net asset of the country = 3 dollar. There is however a redistribution of wealth. A is the winner, B is the loser, C is lucky that he is spared.

End of the story

A few points worth noting -
(1) When a bubble is building up, the debt of individual in a country to one another is also building up.
(2) This story of the island is a close system whereby there is no other country and hence no foreign debt. The worth of the asset can only be calculated using the island's own currency. Hence, there is no net loss.
(3) An overdamped system is assumed when the bubble burst, meaning the land's value did not go down to below 1 dollar.
(4) When the bubble burst, the fellow with cash is the winner. The fellows having the land or extending loan to others are the loser. The asset could shrink or in worst case, they go bankrupt.
(5) If there is another citizen D either holding a dollar or another piece of land but refrain to take part in the game. At the end of the day, he will neither win nor lose. But he will see the value of his money or land go up and down like a see saw.
(6) When the bubble was in the growing phase, everybody made money.
(7) If you are smart and know that you are living in a growing bubble, it is worthwhile to borrow money (like A ) and take part in the game. But you must know when you should change everything back to cash.
(8) Instead of land, the above applies to stocks as well.
(9) The actual worth of land or stocks depend largely on psychology.
Agreed, it is very simplistic explanation though it is hardly trivial. Also, here it is very simple to identify the winners, losers and spared. Imagine when we blow up this model, bring in intermediaries, how complex the model would become. I will discuss these complexities in Part 2 of the post.


Sachi said... @ October 05, 2008

Nice one again AP... reminds me of the way Shyamal Roy explains macro economics... impressive... think u would like to take it up as a career option later on!!!

Siddharth Ghule said... @ October 05, 2008

Very lucid and succinct way of putting it and making others understand. Really nice! Here is a quite simplified version that I found in one of the blog that I follow.

I guess you people are getting a hand on experience of macro-economic lectures taught in Business schools.

Woodworm said... @ October 05, 2008

Good One.. Just highlighting another simplifying assumption (which might be getting addressed in Part 2)

This model also assumes that cash is "real money" with an intrinsic value. In the case of the island nation, the actual economy was only "potential usage value of the land" + the value of the metal in the coins + any goods and services that could have been performed on the land. In a world without a central bank or a government, the M0 (actual base physical money) must have accounted for these three things only.

Money Supply in the name of "liquidity", or fiscal meausres like the $700 bn bailout can still steer the picture either ways. So, even holding on to "cash" is by no means a safe bet anymore. There is actually no saying who is "safe" when any bubble collapses.

AP said... @ October 06, 2008

I actually do not explicitly discuss money supply in Part 2... but may be in some other post :)

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