Famed value investor Benjamin Graham introduced Mr. Market in his 1949 book The Intelligent Investor. Mr. Market, an allegory used to describe the irrational, erratic, and emotional behavior that can drive stock prices up and down, is a good lens through which to view the pandemic-era ups and downs of certain stocks.

Carvana (CVNA -5.78%) and Coinbase (COIN -2.51%) have never made much sense as businesses, at least to me. Carvana operates car vending machines and an online used car buying and selling platform, using billions in debt to fund expansion while losing money on every single car it sells. Coinbase charges high transaction fees on trades through its cryptocurrency exchange, a model that only works during times of extreme euphoria in the cryptocurrency markets.

The pandemic convinced Mr. Market that both of these companies were worth tens of billions of dollars. Carvana benefited from soaring demand and prices for used cars, a situation that Mr. Market seemingly believed would last forever. And Coinbase temporarily earned billions in profit as retail traders frantically traded digital tokens as cryptocurrency prices exploded, leading Mr. Market to turn a blind eye to that fact that cryptocurrency has little utility and no intrinsic value whatsoever.

Optimism crashes into reality

Carvana was valued at roughly $30 billion at one point in 2021. For reference, U.S. used car dealers generate around $140 billion of revenue annually, and it's not a high-margin affair. In 2021, when Carvana was seeing intense demand and growing rapidly, the company's gross margin was still just 15%.

Coinbase's market cap topped $70 billion in late 2021. As I pointed out earlier that year, Coinbase's success was extremely fragile. If cryptocurrency were to go mainstream and find real-world utility, it would kill the volatility that drives trading activity and revenue for Coinbase. If it remained a highly speculative asset class, competition would eat away at Coinbase's profit margins. And if cryptocurrency prices crashed and interest faded away, Coinbase would obviously suffer. There were no good outcomes.

For Carvana, the end of the used car boom apparently caught the company off guard. Retail unit sales tumbled in the third quarter, and more concerningly, gross profit per vehicle fell off a cliff. Carvana is overloaded with debt, and interest payments ate up nearly half of the company's depressed gross profit in the third quarter. With pricing based on supply and demand, and with Carvana's cost structure tuned for a booming market it apparently expected to never end, the company is in deep trouble.

For Coinbase, trading activity has evaporated amid plunging cryptocurrency prices and multiple frauds and scandals that have rocked the industry. Like Carvana, Coinbase has a cost problem. The company's cost structure only makes sense in a never-ending cryptocurrency bubble. The bubble has burst, and it doesn't look like it will be reinflating anytime soon.

Don't ignore the bond market

While Mr. Market is manic, swinging from optimism to pessimism and back again on a dime, drinking the Kool-Aid one minute and spitting it out the next, the bond market is a more serious affair. When bond investors become pessimistic about a particular company, it would be wise for stock investors to pay attention.

For both Carvana and Coinbase, bond investors are screaming at stock investors to get real:

  • A Carvana bond issued in May that matures in 2030 is currently trading for less than 47 cents on the dollar.
  • A Coinbase bond issued in late 2021 that matures in 2031 is going for less than 52 cents on the dollar, despite Coinbase's balance sheet still featuring around $5 billion of cash.

These prices suggest that the bond market does not expect either company to survive. Carvana is in more immediate danger -- its debt situation is untenable, and the company doesn't have the liquidity to keep going for much longer based on the rate at which it's burning cash. Carvana's free cash flow through the first nine months of 2022 was a loss of $1 billion, despite a reduction in vehicle inventories .

Coinbase has a longer runway, but its business model appears to be completely broken. The company has a bunch of cash laying around, but that cash is quickly going out the door. In just nine months, Coinbase's cash balance has declined by more than $2 billion, not counting customer deposits. With the collapse of FTX and revelations about the large-scale fraud going on at that once-mighty cryptocurrency exchange, it seems unlikely that cryptocurrency markets are going to stage a comeback anytime soon.

Miracles sometimes happen, but they're not a valid investing strategy. Get out while you still can.