What Investors Should Know After Europe’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Month

cartoon spin bull vs bearFalling inflation, terrible economic news and a general sense of dread for the future seems to have once again become the primary descriptive terms for Europe. Earlier this year things seemed to have improved dramatically for the continent. On the back of the German economic engine much of the concern about the EU had been receding. 2013 had been a good year for investors and confidence was returning to the markets. Lending rates were dropping for the “periphery nations” like Portugal, Greece and Ireland, giving them a fighting chance at borrowing at affordable rates. But first came the Ukrainian/Russia problem which caused a great deal of geo-political instability in the markets. Then came October.

I don’t know if Mario Draghi cries himself to sleep some nights, but I wouldn’t blame him. Despite the best efforts of the ECB, Europe looks closer to being in a liquidity trap then ever. Borrowing rates are not just low, they’re negative, with the ECB charging banks to now to deposit money with them. October also ushered in a string of bad news. For Germany, easily the biggest part of the Eurozone’s hopes for an economic recovery, sanctions against Russia have hurt the manufacturing sector. Germany began the month announcing a steep and unexpected decline in manufacturing of 5.7% in August, the biggest since 2009. This news was followed by criticisms of Germany’s government for not doing more infrastructure investment and being too obsessed with their strict budget discipline. Yesterday 25 banks in the Eurozone failed a stress test, a test that was meant to allay fears about the health of the financial sector.

For Europe then things look bad and even if the situation corrects itself over the next few months (sudden shifts in the economy may not always be permanent and can bounce back quickly) the concerns over Europe’s future will likely undermine any efforts by the ECB to properly stimulate the broad economy and encourage investment on a mass scale. By comparison it looks like the United States is having a party.

The US economy seems to be on track to grow, and as the world’s biggest economy (though there is some dispute) the country is fighting fit and especially lean. Cheap oil from shale drilling is helping the manufacturing sector, making the United States more competitive than South Korea, the UK, Germany and Canada, and the sudden drop in the price of oil is a boon to the US consumer to the tune of nearly 50 billion dollars. Consumer confidence is up, as is spending. Debt levels are down, both for companies and households. Most importantly the economy seems to be tipping over into an expansionary phase, with corporations finally starting to put some of their money to work.

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The coming months could be interesting for investors as we return to a time where once again focus is on the US as the world’s primary economy.Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.32.45 PM The concerns of 2008, that the American consumer was done, the country had seen its best days and its corporations would never recover seem far fetched now. Worries over hyper-inflation are as distant as a the never arriving (but inevitable) rate hike from the Federal reserve. Worries about Great Depression levels of unemployment are problems of other nations, not the US with its now enviable 5.9%, now encroaching on full employment. Old villains seem vanquished and even Emerging Markets, long thought to be entering their own golden era, are now taking a back seat to the growing opportunities coming out of the US.

Investors should sit up and take note. It’s possible that the best is still yet to come for the US markets, and if market conditions continue to improve this bull market could prove to be a long one.

The Media is Turning Market Panic up to 11 – Learn to Tune Them Out

The current market correction is about as fun as a toothache. Made up of a perfect storm of negative sentiment, a slowing global economy and concerns about the end of Quantitative Easing in the US have led to a broad sell-off of global markets, pretty much wiping out most of their gains year-to-date.

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This is what my screen looked like yesterday (October 15th, 2014). The little 52L that you see to the left of many stock symbols means that the price had hit a 52 week low. The broad nature of the sell off, and indiscriminate selling of every company, regardless of how sound their fundamentals tells us more about market panic than it does about the companies sold.

One of the focal points of this correction has been the price of oil, which is off nearly 25% from its high in June. Oil is central to the S&P/TSX, making up nearly 30% of the index. Along with commodities, energy prices are dependent on the expectation of future demand and assumed levels of supply. As investor sentiment have come to expect that the global demand will drop off in the coming year the price of oil has taken a tumble in the last few weeks. Combined with the rise of US energy output, also known as the Shale Energy Revolution, or fracking, the world is now awash in cheap (and getting cheaper oil).

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The price of Brent Crude oil – From NASDAQ

But as investors look to make sense out of what is going on in the markets they would be forgiven if all they learned from the papers, news and internet sites was a barrage of fear and negativity masquerading as insight and knowledge. The presumed benefit of having so much access to news would be useful and clear insight that could help direct investors on how to best manage the current correction. Instead the media has only thrown fuel on the fire, fanning the flames with panic and fear.

WTI & BrentContrast two similar articles about the winners and losers of a dropping price of oil. The lead article for the October 15th Globe and Mail’s Business section was “Forty Day Freefall”, which went to great lengths to highlight one big issue and then cloak it in doom. The article’s primary focus is the price war that is developing between OPEC nations and North American producers. Even as global demand is reportedly slowing Saudi Arabia is increasing production, with no other OPEC nations seemingly interested in slowing the price drop or unilaterally cutting production. The reason for this action is presumably to stem the growth of oil sand and shale projects, forcing them into an unprofitable position.

 

This naturally raises concerns for energy production in Canada, but it is not nearly the whole story. The Financial Times had a similar focus on what a changing oil price might mean to nations, and its take is decidedly different. For instance, while oil producing nations may not like the new modest price for oil, cheap oil translates into an enormous boon for the global economy, working out to over $600 billion a year in stimulus. In the United States an average household will spend $2900 on gas. Brent oil priced at $80 turns into a $600 a year tax rebate for households. Cheaper oil is also hugely beneficial to the manufacturing sector, helping redirect money that would have been part of the running costs and turning them into potential economic expansion. It’s useful as well to Emerging Economies, many of which will be find themselves more competitive as costs of production drop on the back of reduced energy prices.

A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.
A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.

Business Reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues.

While Canada may have to take it on the chin for a while because of our market’s heavy reliance on the energy sector, weakening oil prices also tends to mean a weakening dollar, both of which are welcomed by Canadian manufacturers. Corrections and changing markets may expose weaknesses in economies, but it should also uncover new opportunities. How we report these events does much to help investors either take advantage of market corrections, or become victims of it. As we wrote back in 2013, business reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues. Pushing bad news sells papers and grabs attention, but denies investors guidance they need.

If I Tell You This is Just a Correction, Will You Feel Better?

19_6_origA correction is typically defined as a drop of roughly 10% in the markets over a very short period of time. It’s often “welcomed” by investment professionals because it creates opportunities for new investments into liked companies that were previously trading above valuations considered appealing. Corrections are talked about as being necessary, beneficial and part of a normal and healthy market cycle, which all makes it sound somewhat medical. But in medical terms it falls under the category of being told your are about to receive 5 injections in short order and they are all going to hurt.

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S&P TSX From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For investors the past couple of weeks in the market has felt like many such injections. The US markets have had a significant sell off, as have the global, emerging, and Canadian markets. All of it very quickly. The sudden drop has erased many of the gains in an already slow year and eaten dramatically into the TSX’s return which had been one of the best.

From Bloomberg - October 2, 2014
Dow Jones Industrial From Bloomberg – October 2, 2014

For many investors any sudden change in the direction of the markets can immediately give the sense that we are heading into another 2008. As Canadian (and American) investors are now 6 years older and closer to retirement the stakes also seem much higher. So here are some reasons why you shouldn’t be concerned about the most recent market volatility, and what you can do to make them work to your advantage.

1. Everyone is nervous.

For several months people have been calling for a correction. Investor sentiment is neutral and consumer confidence has dipped, meaning that overall atmosphere is somewhat negative for the markets. But that can be a good thing. Market crashes and bust cycles typically show up when people are exuberant and feel euphoric about markets. Bad news is swept aside and the four most dangerous words in investing “This time it’s different” become the hallmark of the new bubble. It’s rare that negativity breeds an over exuberant market.

2. The Economy isn’t running on all cylinders.

There certainly have been encouraging numbers in the United States, and even recently Canada has had some improved economic numbers, but by and large there hasn’t been a big expansion yet in the economy. Unemployment is still high, especially in Europe and the labour force has shrunk (which can skew the unemployment numbers) while corporations continue to sit on enormous piles of cash, to their detriment. A market crash usually follows an overheated economy that begins to over-produce based on faulty views about future growth potential. That isn’t where we are yet.

3.  Corporations are really healthy, and so are investors.

Canadians may still have bundles of debt, but the US is a different story. American corporations and households have been heavily deleveraging since 2008. In fact corporations in the US look to be some of the healthiest in decades, showing better earnings to debt ratios than previously thought. Crashes have as much to do with over-production as they do with out-of-control borrowing. The two go hand in hand and both factors are currently missing from the existing economic landscape.

4. Energy is cheap. Like, really cheap. 

Remember when oil was more than $100 a barrel? High energy prices, and the expectation of future high energy prices can really put the kibosh on future returns and throw cold water all over the market. As we’ve previously said, energy is the lifeblood of civilizations and a steady supply of affordable energy is what separates great economies from poor ones. (Look, we tweeted this earlier! See, twitter is useful. Follow us @Walker_Report)

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/517604263493894145

West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months - from NASDAQ - October 2, 2014
West Texas Crude Oil Price over the last 3 months – from NASDAQ – October 2, 2014

The arrival and growth of American gas production combined with changing technologies and increasing efficiencies on existing energy use means that global demand is slowing, while global supply is increasing. In fact in March of last year, the head analyst for energy at Citigroup published a paper describing exactly this trend of improved efficiency with new sources as a mix for lower energy prices in the long term. Whether this proves true over the next two decades is hard to say, but what is true is that cheap energy helps economies while expensive energy hinders it. Since economies have already adjusted to the higher price over the last few years, a declining price is a tailwind for growth.

Does this mean that there aren’t any risks in the market? Absolutely not. Europe is having a terrible year as a result of persistent economic problems and Russian intransience, and many Emerging Markets are showing the strain of continued growth, either through corruption or exceeding optimism about the future. Those pose real risks, but taken in the grand scheme of things our outlook remains positive for the markets.

How can I make this all work for me?

So what can you do as an investor to make a correction benefit you? The first piece of advice is always the same. Sit tight. Dramatic changes to your investments when they are down tends to lead to permanent losses. Secondly, rebalance your account periodically as the market declines. On the whole equity funds will lose a greater proportion of their value than fixed income, leaving a balanced portfolio heavier in conservative than growth investments. Rebalancing gives you a chance to buy more units of growth funds at a lower price while adding greater potential for upside as the market recovers. Lastly, if you have money sitting on the sidelines, down markets are great opportunities to begin Dollar-Cost-Averaging. For nervous investors this is a great way to ease into the markets even as markets look unstable. You can read about it here, but I recommend watching the movie below for a nice visual explanation. Now, take your medicine.

Don’t Be Surprised That No One Knows Why The Market Is Down

Money CanLast Friday I watched the TSX start to take a precipitous fall. The one stock market that seemed immune to any bad news and had easily outperformed almost every other index this year had suddenly shed 200 points in a day.

Big sell-offs are common in investing. They happen periodically and can be triggered by anything, or nothing. A large company can release some disappointing news and it makes investors nervous about similar companies that they hold, and suddenly we have a cascade effect as “tourist” investors begin fleeing their investments in droves.

This past week has seen a broad sell-off across all sectors of the market in Canada, with Financials (Read: Banks), Materials (Read: Mining) and Energy (Read: Oil) all down several percentage points. In the course of 5 days the TSX lost 5% of its YTD growth. That’s considerable movement, but if you were looking to find out why the TSX had dropped so much so quickly you would be hard pressed to find any useful information. What had changed about the Canadian banks that RBC (RY) was down 2% in September? Or that TD Bank (TD) was down nearly 5% in a month? Oil and gas were similarly effected, many energy stocks and pipeline providers found themselves looking at steep drops over the last month. Enbridge (ENB) saw significant losses in their stock value, as did other energy companies, big and small, like Crew Energy (CR).

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The S&P TSX over the last five days

All this begs the question, what changed? The answer is nothing. Markets can be distorted by momentum investors looking to pile on to the next hot stock or industry, and we can quibble about whether or not we think the TSX is over valued by some measure. But if you were looking for some specific reason that would suggest that there was something fundamentally flawed about these companies you aren’t going to have any luck finding it. Sometimes markets are down because investors are nervous, and that’s all there is to it.

Market panic can be good for investors if you stick to a strong investment discipline, namely keeping your wits about you. Down markets means buying opportunities and only temporary losses. It help separates the real investors from the tourists, and can be a useful reminder about market risk.

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So was last Friday the start of a big correction for Canada? My gut says no. The global recovery, while slow and subject to international turmoil, is real. Markets are going to continue to recover, and we’ve yet to see a big expansion in the economy as companies deploy the enormous cash reserves they have been hoarding since 2009. In addition, the general trend in financial news in the United States is still very positive, and much of that news has yet to be reflected in the market. There have even been tentative signs of easing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, which bodes well for Europe. In fact, as I write this the TSX is up just over 100 points, and while that may not mean a return to its previous highs for the year I wouldn’t be surprised if we see substantial recoveries from the high quality companies whose growth is dependent on global markets.

Correlation: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Market and Love Diversification

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The look of a nervous investor who needs more diversification

This year has seen further gains in the stock market both in Canada and the United States. But after five straight years of gains (the US is having its third longest period without a 10% drop) many are calling for an end to the party.

Calling for a correction in the markets isn’t unheard of, especially after such a long run of good performance. The question is what should investors do about it? Most financial advisors and responsible journalists will tell you to hold tight until it 1. happens, and 2. passes. But for investors, especially post 2008, such advice seems difficult to follow. Most Canadians with any significant savings aren’t just five years closer to retiring than they were in 2008, they are also likely considering retirement within the next 10 years. Another significant correction in the market could drastically change their retirement plans.

Complicating matters is that the investing world has yet to return to “normal”. Interest rates are at all time lows, reducing the returns from holding fixed income and creating a long term threat to bond values. The economy is still quite sluggish, and while labour numbers are still slack, labour participation will likely never return to previous highs as more and more people start retiring. Meanwhile corporations are still sitting on mountains of cash and haven’t really done much in the way of revenue growth, but share prices continue to rise making market watchers nervous about unsustainable valuations.

In short, it’s a confusing mess.

My answer to this is to stay true to principles of diversification. Diversification has to be the most boring and un-fun elements of being invested and it runs counter to our natural instincts to maximize our returns by holding investments that may not perform consistently. Diversification is like driving in a race with your brakes on. And yet it’s still the single most effective way to minimize the impacts of a market correction. It’s the insurance of the investing world.

This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.
This is not you, please do not use him as your investing inspiration.

The challenge for Canadians when it comes to diversifying is to understand the difference between problems that are systemic and those that are unique. The idea is explained well by Joseph Heath in his book Filthy Lucre. Using hunters trying to avoid starvation he notes that “10 hunters agree to share with one another, so that those who were lucky had a good day give some of their catch to those who were unlucky and had a bad day…the result will be a decrease in variance.” This type of risk pooling is premised off the idea “that one hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed must be unrelated to any other hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed.”  Systemic risk is when “something happens that simultaneously reduces everyone’s chances of catching some game.” This is why it is unhelpful to have more than one Canadian equity mutual fund in a portfolio, and to be cognizant of high correlation between funds.

The question investors should be asking is about the correlation between their investments. That information isn’t usually available except to people (like myself) who pay for services to provide that kind of data. But a financial advisor should be able to give you insight into not just the historic volatility of your investments, but also how closely they correlate with the rest of the portfolio.

Sadly I have no insights as to whether the market might have a correction this year, nor what the magnitude of such a correction could be. For my portfolio, and all the portfolios I manage the goal will be to continue to seek returns from the markets while at the same time finding protection through a diversified set of holdings.

 

By the Numbers, What Canadian Investors Should Know About Canada

I thought I had more saved!I am regularly quite vocal about my concern over the Canadian economy. But like anyone who may be too early in their predictions, the universe continues to thwart my best efforts to make my point. If you’ve been paying attention to the market at all this year it is Canada that has been pulling ahead. The United States, and many global indices have been underwater or simply lagging compared to the apparent strength of our market.

But fundamentals matter. For instance, the current driver in the Canadian market is materials and energy (translation, oil). But it’s unclear why this is, or more specifically, why the price of oil is so high. With the growing supply of oil from the US, costly Canadian oil seems to be the last thing anyone needs, but a high oil price and a weak Canadian dollar have conspired to give life to Canadian energy company stocks.

YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014
YTD Performance of Global Indices as of April 25th, 2014

Similarly the Canadian job market has been quite weak. Many Canadian corporations have failed to hire, instead sitting on mountains of cash resulting in inaction in the jobs market. Meanwhile the weak dollar, typically a jump start to our industrial sector, has failed to do any such thing. But at the core of our woes is the disturbing trend of burdensome debt and the high cost of homeownership.

I know what you want to say. “Adrian, you are always complaining about burdensome debt and high costs of homeownership! Tell me something I don’t know!” Well, I imagine you don’t know just how burdensome that debt is. According to Maclean’s Magazine the total Canadian consumer and mortgage debt is now close to $1.7 Trillion, 1 trillion more than it was in 2003. That’s right, in a decade we have added a trillion dollars of new debt. And while there is some evidence that the net worth of Canadian families has gone up, once adjusted for inflation that increase is really the result of growing house prices and recovering pensions.

Today Canadians carry more personal credit card debt than ever before. We spend more money on luxury goods, travel and on home renovations than ever before. Our consumer spending is now 56% of GDP, and it is almost all being driven by debt.

Canadians have made a big deal about how well we faired through the economic meltdown of 2008, and were quick to wag our fingers at the free spending ways of our neighbours to the South, but the reality is we are every bit as cavalier about our financial well being as they were at the height of the economic malfeasance. While it is unlikely we will see a crash like that in the US, the Canadian market is highly interconnected, and drops in the price of oil will have a ripple effect on borrowing rates, defaults, bank profits and unemployment, all of which is be exasperated by our high debt levels.

Canada’s Economy Still Ticking Along, But Don’t be Fooled

Money CanThis year the Canadian markets have been doing exceptionally well. Where as last year the S&P/TSX had been struggling to get above 2% at this time, this year the markets have soared ahead of most of their global counterparts. In fact the Canadian market triumph is only half of this story, matched equally by the disappointing performance of almost every significant global market. Concerns over China have hurt Emerging Markets. The Ukrainian crisis has hindered Europe, and a difficult winter combined with weaker economic data has put the brakes on the US as well.

YTD TSX Performance

But this sudden return to form should not fool Canadians. It is a common trope of investing that people over estimate the value of their local economies, and a home bias can prove to be dangerous to a portfolio. Taking a peak under the hood of Canada’s market performance and we see it is largely from the volatile sectors of the economy. In the current year the costs of Oil, Natural Gas and Gold are all up. Utilities have also driven some of the returns, but with the Materials and Energy sector being a full third of the TSX its easy to see what’s really driving market performance. Combined with a declining dollar and improving global economy and Canada looks like an ideal place to invest.

TSX Market Sectors

But the underlying truth of the Canadian market is that it remains unhealthy. Manufacturing is down, although recovering slowly. Jobs growth exists, but its highly anemic. The core dangers to the vast number of Canadians continue to be high debt, expensive real-estate and cheap credit. In short, Canada is beginning to look more like pre-2008 United States rather than the picture of financial health we continue to project. Cheap borrowing rates are keeping the economy afloat, and it isn’t at all clear what the government can do to slow it down without upsetting the apple cart.

For Canadian investors the pull will be to increase exposure to the Canadian market, but they should be wary that even when news reports seem favourable about how well the Canadian economy might do, they are not making a comment about how healthy the economy really is. Instead they are making a prediction about what might happen if trends continue in a certain direction. There are many threats to Canada, both global and domestic, and it should weigh heavily on the minds of investors when they choose where to invest.

 

Looking for Dark Clouds Amidst Silver Linings

628x471This year got off to a rocky start. As of writing this post, the S&P 500 is down over -2% year-to-date (YTD), while other global markets have been similarly affected. The MSCI Global Index is down nearly -1%, the MSCI Emerging Markets index is also down -4.5%, as is the FTSE 100 (UK, -1.3%) and last year’s super-performer, Japan (-12.1%). This sudden “frothiness” has brought out the fear mongers and market doom-sayers. So regularly has the drum been beaten that 2014 should see a significant slide in market value that it has become a regular question in every meeting. (note: I did not update these numbers for the current week, however many of these returns have improved. In some cases quite dramatically)

The only problem is that any internet search will easily reveal market calls for a correction EACH and EVERY YEAR! This doesn’t mean that a correction won’t happen, in fact if there is one thing that we know about the markets its that corrections do, and must happen. We also know that the longer you go without a correction the closer you must be to having one. The problem is that we place value on people who claim to be able to predict a market downturn, even when we can’t actually predict when a downturn will actually occur. So the media keeps trotting out people willing to make outlandish market predictions knowing that it will grab headlines and eventually be right.

Except….

Except that there are lots of reasons to be cautious in the current market conditions. Not that we can predict when we might actually see a downturn, but there a lot of reasons why it makes sense to have defensive positions in your portfolio. For instance, we are currently at an all time high for IPOs, the most since 1997. There is some evidence that as IPOs peak its not uncommon to see a market correction, as less valuable companies try to cash in on market exuberance and professional investors try and sell their positions in less viable companies to bullish markets.

Other market metrics also seem to favour being on the defensive. Currently there are 84 companies on the S&P 500 with shares that are valued above 10x earnings. This means that investors are incredibly bullish about the future prospects when it comes to income growth. Many of these companies are in hi-tech sectors, like social media firms such as Twitter. For the record that is the most number of companies above this valuation since prior to the tech bubble in 1999.

Share buy backs also play a role here. If you aren’t familiar, with borrowing rates still very low many companies have taken the opportunity to borrow large sums of money and buy their outstanding shares back. Why? As the number of outstanding shares in the market declines the Earnings Per-Share goes up. This means that even if a company isn’t seeing actual growth in sales, it does mean that the the remaining shares receive a greater portion on the earnings, artificially increasing their value. In of itself this isn’t a problem, but it serves to increase the stock market while not seeing much in the way of actual economic growth.

Lastly we have also seen that the flow of money into ETF funds (passive investments that mimic indices) is also adding volatility to the markets. As investors remain concerned over negative surprises in the news, the high liquidity of ETFs causes even greater short term fluctuations in the markets as investors pull back. This is especially true in the Emerging Markets, and has had the unusual side effect of showing that actively managed funds have outperformed comparable ETFs.

In summary then there are four good reasons to believe that the markets may get more turbulent going forward. The lesson however is not to commit to a wholly negative or positive view of the markets, but rather continue to hold a diversified group of assets to deal with all market surprises, both good and bad!

 

All Time High Doesn’t Equal Bubble

iStockphoto 046On more than one occasion I have been quizzed about the future of some stock market-or-other to the lack of satisfaction of the quizzer. Invariably the conversation goes something like: “What with all the money being printed and the new highs of the stock market, shouldn’t it all come down?” And my answer is usually, “No.”

This is frustrating for people because there is a real feeling that the stock market in the United States should not be doing as well as its doing. Some of this comes from the incongruity of negative media reports about the US economy and the ever growing stock market, some comes from the lingering shock of 2008, and some from an intellectual class that feel that our economic future is built on sand.

But a large reason for my belief in future growth is in looking past the fear of “big numbers.” When the stock market has a correction it’s often pointed out that it had just reached new highs. But this doesn’t mean that all new highs equal a market correction. The subtext is that there must be some limit to the growth in the market and that a new “all time high” must transcend this natural barrier, creating a bubble.

This is a populist understanding of market bubbles and has little to do with reality. The market should grow and reflect a burgeoning economy, and while the American economy has struggled its companies have continued to post substantial profits and many of them have either continued to grow in the slower market, or have begun to offer or expand dividends, making them more attractive. 

The simple truth is crashes happen at market highs, but not because of them. Bubbles are not simply a quickly growing market, but represent a detachment between market fundamentals and a rapidly rising price, fed by the enthusiasm for rapidly growing prices.