The market may not crash this year.
Let's lead with that in light of the fiscally salacious nature of this headline. Stocks appear vulnerable to a sharp correction in today's climate of rising rates and political unrest overseas, but that certainly doesn't mean that it will happen. It's never that easy.
Behind every timely market call of a market top, there are countless others that think they got it right despite curling into the fetal position at markedly lower price points.
This isn't a market call. I'm bullish on stocks, at least for the long haul.
However, it seems that everyone's a genius in retrospect. Investors have no problem picking out the telltale signs of a crash or bubble after everyone is walking through the ruins. Whether it was the obsession with site traffic over profitability ahead of the dot-com bubble of 2001 or the loosening of lending standards before the real estate market collapse a few years ago, everybody believes they saw it coming.
Let's go out on a limb, then. Let's be fashionably early for a change. Let's pick out what in retrospect will be the telltale signs of a frothy market before the crash -- that may or may not happen -- takes place.
Here are three recent signs that the market had it coming.
1. Tesla is a $20 billion company
One of the market's biggest winners this year has been Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA ) . If you had invested a Chevy Volt in Tesla's stock at the beginning of the year, you would have enough money to buy a pair of Model S sedans.
Yes, Tesla is the coolest company on the planet. Elon Musk is a deity in some circles. However, this is still a company selling roughly as many plug-in cars a month as the Volt or Leaf.
It's true that Tesla can't keep up with demand, but even its own website has the waiting list for a new Model S at between one and three months for an order placed today. That's not so impressive for an assembly line cranking out just hundreds of cars a week.
Now, it's true that Musk is a genius. It's also true that more attractively priced Tesla cars will be on the way in a few years. However, does any of this justify the stock's $20 billion market cap? Everything can go right for Tesla in the coming years, and it may still wind up being no better than a $10 billion company.
2. Microsoft moving higher on the capitulation of Steve Ballmer
Last Friday's 7% pop in Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) shares on news that CEO Steve Ballmer will leave within a year after his replacement is found was jarring.
Ballmer is certainly worthy of criticism, but there is nothing that he did that is reversible. There is no CEO that can go back in time to beat Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) to the iPhone in 2007. Actually, if Microsoft wanted to be a leader in the smartphone market, it would have actually had to have beaten Apple to the iPod in 2001. The reason that Apple's iPhone became so popular is because everyone trusted it as a premium brand in portable consumer electronics on the heels of the iPod's success. There's no way that the company behind the Zune portable media player would be the game changer in mobile come 2007.
However, even Apple's dominance was short-lived. Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG ) Android has quickly overtaken Apple for global market share in smartphones and, more recently, tablets. Ballmer could have beaten Google to the punch by making its mobile operating system open source, but the market would've hated trading the high margins of Microsoft's premium software for the pursuit of mindshare on a pro bono basis.
The next Microsoft CEO can't change the past, and the present environment of platform-agnostic gadgetry makes it highly unlikely that anyone will ever profit off of operating systems the way that Microsoft did in the past.
3. The IPO market is a glutton for punishment
American Homes 4 Rent (NYSE: AMH ) went public earlier this month.
Everything about this IPO raised flags.
American Homes 4 Rent is the country's second-largest player in the niche that buys distressed properties, dolls them up, and rents them out. This market is so young that American Homes 4 Rent just got into the business two years ago and it's already the silver medalist.
Can you feel the bubble? This may have been a great strategy a couple of years ago when the real estate market bottomed out, but raising money now means that they will be paying today's prices for new properties. The only thing distressed these days is the buyer. With median real estate prices up nearly 14% over the past year, the costs to buy new digs are growing faster than what these companies can square away in rent.
It gets worse. American Homes 4 Rent isn't the first company in this niche to go public. Two smaller players hit the market in the past eight months, and both of them are trading below their original IPO prices. These companies are structured as REITs, but they're not shelling out any payouts at the moment. How does an underwriter get investors excited about this one?
Well, American Homes 4 Rent had to settle for the low end of its pricing range. Several weeks later it's still trading near its $16 IPO price tag.
Something's got to give.
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