What is the Dotcom Bubble?
The dotcom bubble was the exponential rise of tech stock prices between 1995 and 1999. While tech stocks were on fire throughout the late 90s, the real explosive growth came in 1998 and 1999.
The period was a time of market mania in which plumbers and mechanics were becoming millionaire day traders, tech IPOs would multiply on their first days of trading, and vanity metrics such as “eyeballs” or “mind-share” were becoming serious valuation metrics for analysts of technology companies.
While the dotcom bubble spawned many spectacular failures like Pets.com and Webvan, some of the largest companies in the world went public during this time.
Once the bubble popped, the NASDAQ 100, the index which featured the most prominent tech stocks of the era, had dropped more than 80% peak-to-trough.
Dotcom Bubble Chart
When you hear trader interviews on a podcast like Chat With Traders, they speak of the dotcom boom as a time of unconstrained mania that will never return.
A time when just about anyone can make a fortune trading, even without a sound methodology. “Taking candy from a baby” is a common analogy.
Bubbles tend to occur during times when credit is freely available, and other macroeconomic factors like unemployment and inflation are at healthy levels. When lending is permissive, companies that wouldn’t survive under less favorable conditions get funded and contribute to the bubble.
Of course, macroeconomic factors are just one piece of the puzzle.
As you’ll see in this article, I think people tend to oversimplify how many factors lined up at just the right time to create this bubble. The bubble can be attributed to the culmination of several factors in the flavors of the rise of the internet’s utility for commerce, socioeconomic trends, macroeconomic trends, and trends in demographics.
The Early Seeds of the Dotcom Bubble
The boom was the perfect storm of a few factors that contributed to the rapid across-the-board growth of US equities, and tech stocks in particular.
Most commentators and pundits refer to the rise of the internet in the mid-90s as the catalyst for the bubble. Still, the first seeds of the bubble were actually planted during the US presidential election of 1980 when Ronald Reagan campaigned for social security funds to automatically be invested into the stock market.
In the coming years, Americans would become consumed by stocks and the economy defined by markets.
Until the 80s, the stock market was seen as a dull, old man’s game. Most savings were invested in bonds and securities other than stocks. Any run-up in the stock market would be accompanied by a congruent downfall in prices, presenting itself as an unattractive place to park your money.
Americans who lived through the Great Depression were forever skeptical of the stock market. Significant bubbles couldn’t happen because not enough people would get involved.
Those who did still had their Depression-era ideals, that anytime the getting is too good, a Depression is probably right around the corner.
Market skepticism was a safeguard against bubbles. It wasn’t until the baby boomers were ready to start investing that a real bubble could inflate.
By the late 1980s, when Alan Greenspan took over as the Chair of the Federal Reserve, the stage was being set for a massive stock market bubble. Americans were already interested in stocks again due to the rise of the hostile takeover, creating enormous price spikes in declines in just one day.
The market was getting ready for a bubble; it just needed boomers to get a bit older, and a new catalyst: the internet.
How Did the Dotcom Boom Happen?
When looking back at the period, there were so many factors converging at the same time that laid the groundwork for a massive asset bubble.
The most obvious is that the internet was becoming advanced and ubiquitous enough that it began to have serious potential for businesses.
Still, several other factors were at play, all acting as contributors to the bubble.
Baby boomers were the largest American generation up until that point. As a consequence, their attitudes and situations at any given time shaped that of the entire nation. In the late 1990s, 76 million boomers were entering their prime earning years–their 40s and were beginning to save and invest for retirement.
Boomers, who were about to become the largest buyers of stocks, were especially ripe for building an asset bubble because throughout their entire lives up to that point, stocks have basically only gone up.
They hadn’t gone through the Great Depression and developed the market-skepticism of their parents.
The 1990s economy under Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, or ‘Uncle Alan’ as Wall Street fondly called him, was referred to as the Goldilocks Economy. The level of unemployment, inflation, and interest rates was just right.
Greenspan was a fan of expansionary monetary policy.
He favored lowering interest rates when he could to stimulate the economy, and as a result, the stock market. Uncle Alan also adored the new technological advancements coming out, and largely bought into the dotcom hype.
Throughout the bubble, each time stock prices would fall, Wall Street would trust that Uncle Alan would be there to ‘save’ the market. In later years, Greenspan would admit that he and the Federal Reserve made many mistakes in the handling of the tech boom.
The Advent of Financial Entertainment
If you’re an American, you’re undoubtedly familiar with 24-hour news networks like Fox News and CNN. Endless pontification, oversimplification, and verbal quarrels for entertainment, not informing the public.
You might be surprised to hear that CNBC served as a proof of concept for these networks. Roger Ailes, a media executive, known for turning Fox News into what it is today, first tested the “entertainment news” idea on CNBC when he became the president of the network in 1993.
CNBC anchors began reporting market news with the same excitement and suspense as a sportscaster like Chris Berman.
The network made trading and investing fun and easy. CNBC replaced local news and even sports as the programming of choice at restaurants, cafes, and bars. It wasn’t abnormal to see CNBC playing in an NYC pizza joint.
Democratization of Investing
Before the advent of online discount stock brokers, Americans were used to full-service brokers, from whom they were charged sky-high commissions for stock tips and investing advice. Most deferred to the wisdom of their broker and seldom concerned themselves with the gyrations of the market.
Online brokerages like E*TRADE, Datek Online, and Ameritrade enabled retail investors to fire their brokers and make trades for a fraction of the former cost, at the click of a button.
As much as 40% of individual investors with financial assets between $25,000 and $99,000 made their first stock trade after January 1996.
These greenhorn investors were chasing the hottest tech IPO, hoping to double their money overnight.
Internet companies were a whole new breed. Few on Wall Street had much knowledge about the internet. But, everyone intuitively understood how much leverage a company could have access to if the internet was properly harnessed.
So, while a few companies were making any profits, or even sales, investors knew that their future earning potential is virtually unlimited.
So, the market had no idea how to value these high-risk, high-potential, pre-earnings tech companies. Because there was no accepted methodology, hype and FOMO came to rule valuations, leading to a violent downturn as the bubble popped.
Seeing as professional money managers and analysts couldn’t figure out how to value internet stocks, how well do you think amateur investors were at evaluating uncertain future earnings growth?
The Stars of the DotCom Boom
One of the stars of the dotcom boom was Henry Blodget. Blodget was a young analyst at Oppenheimer, a lower-tier investment bank at the time. He was mostly hired due to his youth, as banks were looking for anyone with unique insight into internet companies.
Out of mostly luck, Blodget’s first recommendation on Amazon.com’s stock was a huge success, leading to him becoming a stock market celebrity on Wall Street and Main Street. He was a frequent guest on CNBC, and retail investors heavily followed his stock picks.
He was soon hired as the head of global internet research at Merrill Lynch in his early 30s and became the most followed analyst on Wall Street. Before the bubble, there was really no such thing as a celebrity research analyst, but the CNBCization of the market, as Brian McCullough of the Internet History Podcast called it, was turning trading into the new national pastime.
In her book about bull market cycle that started in the 80s, Maggie Mahar described Blodget as an ordinary young guy who didn’t have any more internet wisdom than your average web user, but was catapulted into fandom due to bank’s need for internet stock picks.
She goes onto explain how, in every asset bubble, there is a non-expert propelled into expert status based on faulty criteria, and Blodget was that guy.
Alan Greenspan, or ‘Uncle Alan,’ as Wall Street referred to him, is often blamed for his role in allowing the market and economy to get out of hand. The 90s was the time of “Goldilocks Economy,” where inflation, interest rates, and unemployment levels were just right.
Retail and institutional investors alike revered Uncle Alan for ‘saving’ the market each time things got too out of hand.
Greenspan became enamored with the “new economy” like the rest of the market. At one point, when productivity statistics weren’t as favorable as he believed they should be, he ordered the recollection of the data.
He firmly believed that new technology had to be improving productivity across the board, and thought the conventional calculation methods weren’t capturing the increased productivity.
Uncle Alan became such a believer in the bull market that he did whatever he could to support and prop the market up, based on the belief that this bull market was different, that this level of technological innovation has never occurred inside such a compressed time period, and deserved the same unprecedented price movement.
Greenspan created an environment where too much money was chasing too few assets.
What We Can Learn From The Dotcom Bubble
Innovation Doesn’t Equal Returns
Of the several internet companies that went public during the dotcom bubble, a small handful is still around in a meaningful way: Amazon, eBay, and Priceline come to mind, with a few other smaller companies still around.
Investors in the 1990s knew that the internet and computers were going to change the world. But, sometimes, calling a trend correctly doesn’t convert into investment returns. Those around at the start of the automobile industry probably knew cars would change the world, too, but unless they heavily weighted into Ford, GM or Chrysler, their portfolios were also crushed.
There’s a significant Pareto distribution at play here. In a new industry like the internet, a tiny percentage of companies will ultimately succeed, and of those that do, they get a giant slice of the pie.
Investing in the Future
Most investors pay a premium for a company with massive future potential, but nothing to show for it today. This is backward, as the vast majority of companies with new, untested ideas fail. Think about how many companies have tried to enter the alternative energy space.
Outside of Tesla, can you think of any massive successes? In industries like these, losers outnumber winners big time, and you should expect that to be priced into a stock that you’re buying based only on its future potential.
Bottom line: when investing in new, untested ideas, your price should reflect the massive risk inherent within.
A share is a claim on a company’s earnings. If a company in a new, frothy industry is trading at sky-high multiples of their earnings, the market is pricing in massive growth. But, the thing about companies within frothy sectors is that the vast majority fail in the long run.
Once the hype and momentum cool down, and the traders get off the train, the real investors are going to be expecting to see some earnings. Once the positive-feedback loop of price advancement stops, the stock usually craters.
Even the strongest companies of the era, Amazon, Cisco, etc., were still brutally punished as the bubble burst. Once rationality set in, the buyers who survived the crash were only willing to buy proven companies that can justify their valuation.
In the United States (and as a result, much of the world, too), we’ve seen two significant asset-price bubbles inflate and pop over the last two decades. In the remnants are empty retirement accounts, lost savings, unemployment, and defunct businesses.
Consequently, the American investing culture has become bubble-obsessed, continually looking for the next boom-and-bust, pointing out lofty valuations and irrational exuberance wherever its found. Bitcoin, modern tech stocks, student loans, automotive loans, the S&P 500–you name it.
In the same way that those who lived through the Great Depression became market skeptics, always expecting another crash as soon as the economy started doing well, investors who lived through the dotcom bubble have grown their brand of skepticism.
A distrust of rapidly advancing prices, of high-multiple tech stocks, and of new industries.