In one year, the bull market has persuaded investors to do something they were reluctant to do near the end of an almost eleven-year bull: Lever Up. Year-over-year growth in Margin Debt reached 49% in February and should catapult far above the “conventional” 50% danger threshold with March’s results.
Someday, we’ll have a chuckle with our (yet unborn) basketball-playing grandson about the time Shaquille O’Neal was able to raise several-hundred-million dollars in his second SPAC. But while these anecdotes get sillier and sillier, we have a personal bias toward speculative activity we can measure over time. That activity isn’t quite as alarming as the anecdotes, but it’s getting there.
The January moves in heavily shorted Micro Caps were more bizarre than anything we saw during the wildest days of the Tech bubble. Despite these signs of rampant stock speculation by the retail crowd, we still wouldn’t characterize today’s sentiment backdrop as frenzied as the peak levels of 1999-2000.
It’s been more than two years since NYSE Margin Debt broke out above its 2007 high, and we remember the rash of bearish commentary that accompanied that milestone. We later showed the Margin Debt increase was almost perfectly proportional to the gain in the stock market itself, and not a reason to turn bearish in and of itself. But our tune has changed.