GameStop Is A Bubble In Its Purest Form
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GameStop Is A Bubble In Its Purest Form

It is tempting to see GameStop’s soaring stock as merely the result of clownish behaviour in a chat room. That would be a mistake.

By James Mackintosh
Thu, Jan 28, 2021 2:15amGrey Clock 4 min

GameStop is the platonic ideal of a stock bubble.

A combination of easy money, a real improvement in the company’s prospects, technical support from a short squeeze and a mad rush to get rich or die trying pushed stock in the retailer up 64-fold from late August to Wednesday’s close. Anyone who has held on for 10 days made gains of more than 10 times their money.

It is tempting to see GameStop as merely clownish behaviour in a chat room having some amusing effects on a stock few care about. That would be a mistake.

Sure, the wildly popular Reddit group Wall Street Bets—slogan: like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal—is full of childish chat. Several users report that they have bet their parents’ pension fund on GameStop or that the boss’s daughter has bought in. There are plenty of calls for the stock to go to $1000 or more (it started the year at $18.84).

But GameStop’s soaring stock—and similar moves in BlackBerry, Nokia and others—is a bubble in microcosm, with lessons for those of us worrying about froth elsewhere in the market.

GameStop’s rise started with some genuine good news, just as bubbles always do. Ryan Cohen, who built up and sold online pet-food retailer Chewy, started building what is now a 13% stake for his RC Ventures in GameStop last year. He pushed for the staid mall-based seller of videogames to improve its internet sales. This month he joined the board.

Mr Cohen’s arrival means GameStop at least has a chance of joining the 21st century. From the first disclosure of his stock purchases in August up to the end of November the shares tripled, helped too by the improved prospects for the vaccine-driven reopening of the economy.

Along the way, some private investors latched on to the stock, helping its rise, and it became an item of discussion on Wall Street Bets, or r/WSB as it’s known.

This month the stock moved into the pure speculative phase, producing several daily jumps of 50% or more, and fundamentals were abandoned. Many cheerleaders on r/WSB stopped even making the pretense of arguments about Mr Cohen’s chances of turning the company around. Instead, there were two justifications for buying: wanting to get in on the price action to avoid being labelled, in the abusive parlance of the forum, a “retard” who missed gigantic profits, and the self-fulfilling prospect of hurting the large numbers of short-sellers.

As the late economist Charles Kindleberger put it: “There is nothing as disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich. Unless it is to see a non-friend get rich.”

The scale of trading in GameStop shares is as extraordinary as the daily gains in price, suggesting widespread disturbance to people’s judgment. On Tuesday, $22 billion of shares changed hands, more than in Apple, the world’s largest company, and double GameStop’s market value. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, called speculative manias “overtrading,” and this is what they look like.

The hope of getting rich is only part of what’s inflating the bubble. Kindleberger argued that speculative manias needed innovative sources of financing, and the private traders on r/WSB have one: the shift last year to make trading in options free on Robinhood and several other platforms.

Options, like other derivatives, allow traders to use implied leverage to boost their bets, similar to borrowing money. In the same way that Japan’s bubble in the 1980s was fueled by cheap mortgages, and low Federal Reserve rates combined with collateralised debt obligations to support the housing bubble of the 2000s, the bubble in GameStop is aided by an increase in the money supply of private stock traders. Stimulus checks from the government can’t hurt, either.

Bubbles also frequently have support from technical factors that prevent the asset from being priced correctly. In the late 1990s, many dot-coms had a small float available, and none for short-sellers, making it hard or impossible for those who doubted the story to have their views expressed in the share price.

In GameStop, there are plenty of short-sellers, but they are making things even worse. The stock is caught in a vicious short squeeze. Short sellers had borrowed and sold more than 100% of the stock outstanding, as some was borrowed again. As the price rose, at least some of the hedge funds bought back shares to prevent further losses, so pushing the price up even further.

The most obvious parallel here is to K-Tel, the TV retailer of compilation tapes and the Veg-o-matic food processor, among other things. It announced in 1998 that it was moving online, prompting a jump in the shares that turned into an extraordinary short squeeze. K-Tel’s appropriately named public relations representative, Coffin Communications, gave this wonderful justification to the Washington Post: “Which do you think has more likelihood of success, a pure start-up that has never sold a product, or one like K-Tel that has been in business for 35 years?”

It turned out the answer was a pure startup, and K-Tel’s shares collapsed—but not before they had soared from $3.34 to more than $35 in under a month.

The difference with GameStop is that the r/WSB mob is actively engineering a short squeeze, discussing the pain they hoped to inflict on the short sellers and encouraging buyers not to cash in their profits.

Because there are so many shares that need to be repurchased by short-sellers, this offers an exit route for those who sell. But not everyone can do this, and those who are left holding the stock when demand eventually evaporates will watch the price plummet as it reverts back to something closer to what is justified by the company’s profit potential, just as K-Tel did.

Warren Buffett attributed to his mentor, Ben Graham, the line that “in the short run, the market is a voting machine—reflecting a voter-registration test that requires only money, not intelligence or emotional stability—but in the long run, the market is a weighing machine.”

The absence of emotional stability on r/WSB is obvious and has worked out beautifully for buyers of GameStop so far. But when the stock is weighed, many will be found wanting, as they always are in bubbles.



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Cocoa and Coffee Prices Have Surged. Climate Change Will Only Take Them Higher.

Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sat, Apr 13, 2024 5 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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