Are We In A Vintage Card Bubble?

baseball-bubbleFor any stock investors that were active traders during the late 1990’s the mention of the word ‘bubble’ brings back some rather unpleasant memories.

A more recent ‘bubble’ that younger collectors would be more familiar with involves the recent hysteria surrounding Bitcoin and other associated cryptocurrencies. Cards even experienced their own bubble during the early 90’s.

While I’ve advocated that vintage cards can be viewed as a good long term investment for collectors, there are some warning signs that we should all be aware of.

I want to review some of my concerns and alert collector’s to some of my research on the topic.

Note this isn’t meant as a piece to scare collectors into selling their entire collections but something that I think at least warrants a discussion.

I hope you will provide some commentary as to your thoughts on the subject.

A recent discussion over at the Net54 forums sort of got my juices flowing to write this post.    You can read it yourself, but the gist of it is that a poster was helping a friend invest $10K in a vintage card and was looking for recommendations.  The key points are that they saw the ‘huge returns on popular cards lately’ and felt that buying vintage cards would be ‘the safest way to go’ .

Oh man, everything about this post made my head hurt.  Yes, we ourselves have advocated that vintage cards can very well be a good diversifier for those with only stock investments.  But, if you are investing in something with absolutely no knowledge of the subject and no idea as to what might warrant today’s value  you are in for some very big trouble.

Let’s dive in. 

What Defines A ‘Bubble’?

If we think back to the internet stock market bubble in 2009 or the real estate bubble in 2008 or even the last baseball card bubble back in the early 90’s, there are typically a few commonalities.  Let’s examine each in depth to see where we might be based on our so-called ‘bubble meter’.

There Is Usually An Initial Spark That Ignites The Bubble Based on Some Fundamental Truths

With the Internet Bubble it was the realization that the internet would ultimately lead to a big change in the way that business was done.  And while this WAS fundamentally true, the hysteria got ahead of the actual fundamentals of the companies themselves.

Stocks of companies such as eToys.com and CMGI rose to values in the billions based on zero to little actual earnings.  Nearly all of these companies bit the dust, absent a few gems (notably Amazon).

With the previous card bubble in the early 90’s, it was the realization that little pieces of cardboard initially thought of as a way to dress up bicycle spokes might actually be worth something. A new market formed and led to a significant rise in not only vintage cards but the big rookies of the day.

New entrants with little interest in collecting joined the ranks in the thoughts that they might be able to stow away some unopened packs and become millionaires in due time. The bubble popped mostly due to the insane overproduction of cards as Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer and Donruss kept their printing presses running 24/7.

Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency with a limited supply was seen as the solution to exchanging digital payments with no need for a third party intermediary.  And while the bitcoin story is still somewhat alive and well, the perception is that cryptocurrencies themselves have already lived through their own asset bubble.

What Fuels The Bubble?

The bubble is typically fueled by excess returns that happen in a very short period of time.  With the internet bubble, the NASDAQ increased five fold from 1995 to 2000, only to see the market crash by 78% until the Nasdaq trough in 2002.  I was a broker during the dotcom bubble and to see the hysteria first hand was indeed a life-changing experience.

dot-com-bubble

We had clients calling in to bail on their tired and true investments such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Pfizer to jump into the hot dot-com stocks of the day.  But aside from a few very smart people (Robert Schiller who called the market top is the prime example), it all felt like a freight train that would never ever stop.  It all made sense at the time; why invest in a company like Berkshire Hathaway that has real businesses with real earnings when you could jump into an internet stock such as Pets.com which would change how people buy pet supplies and pet food.  (*Note Pets.com shortly went out of business following the dotcom crash).

The previous card bubble was also a similar story.  Auction prices of vintage cards such as the T206 Wagner and the ’52 Topps Mantle were reaching epic heights and collectors without thousands of dollars to invest could visit one of the many local card shops popping up in their neighborhood to buy some packs to grab the latest and greatest over-produced packs.  Collectors were amassing thousands of rookie cards of prospects in the hopes that they would become the next Griffey Jr or McGwire.

I can attest to this last fact first hand as my brother opened up a card store at the peak of baseball card mania in 1993.  The store (shoutout to the old Card Connection in Stoughton, MA) was a ton of fun but only lasted a few years as my brother couldn’t quite make it through the downturn.  However, I can very clearly recall my brother purchasing thousand card lots of Ellis Burks (1988 Fleer rookies) and a similar amount of Jody Reed cards.

Yes we were in Boston, and yes we thought these guys had a big future in the big leagues.  But looking back I think it should have been a tell tale sign that we could order 1000 cards of any player we wanted many times over for pennies on the dollar.

ellis

The Uniformed Buyer is Quite Prominent During Any Asset Bubble

I became quite enamored with Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies a few years back.  Part of it was due to the huge rise in prices but part of it was just an intellectual curiosity in the subject.  The underlying principles of a bank-less, third-partyless, frictionless currency seemed very interesting to me.

I read as much as I could and believed that while the hysteria had gone too far, there would at the end of the day be a place for Bitcoin and some of the other cryptocurrencies. I as a VERY informed investor dabbled a bit, made a few bucks and moved on as I still had some questions about ‘investing’ in something that I couldn’t actually hold in my hands and didn’t provide any actual dividends or earnings.

However, at the peak of the cryptocurrency hysteria it became common knowledge at dinner parties that I had some sort of knowledge on the subject.  There were many and I mean many conversations over drinks about Bitcoin.  ‘Do you think I should sell my Google stock and buy some Bitcoin?”, “How exactly do I buy Bitcoin?”, “What are the best ICO’s in your opinion?” (note an ICO is an Initial Coin Offering, similar to an IPO in the stock market).  I could just feel the bubble bursting and popping at the same time.  Sometimes it’s not so evident but in the case of Bitcoin is just felt like the insanity had run its course.

bitcoin-grandma

An Economist article from a few years back discussed the card bubble of the 90’s noting that ‘people who shared only a passing interest in the hobby found themselves buying with aplomb, for fear of looking like suckers later for missing the obvious route to wealth’.   Thus the primary appeal for any novice to any asset bubble in the making is the thought that they have found their road to riches.  If you time it right, it could work out, but most end up being quite late to the party.

So, Is This Current Card Market A Bubble?

I’ll ignore for a moment the pricing for modern day cards and the whole 1 of 1 autograph and insert hysteria.  That market itself may indeed be in its own mini-bubble, but the focus of our discussion is on vintage sports cards.

First, it is quite apparent that vintage card pricing, especially for those of the high demand tier one players such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Mickey Mantle has been on quite a tear of late. All we need to do is look at the PWCC index and the consistent outperformance for cards versus the S&P 500 over the past several years.

Notably you can see from the chart below that vintage cards have been on an absolute tear since mid-2014, trouncing returns of the stock market.

pwcc-index

The question is, after a while, who can actually continue to afford purchasing these cards?  I know that personally, I myself and many fellow collectors have been priced out of the big time HOF cards in the more popular pre-war sets (T206 and T205 come to mind).  How many collectors have $7000 or more to invest in a T206 Green Portrait Ty Cobb of which over 1000 are in existence.  Ask yourself this anytime you make a significant investment in card; do the supply and demand numbers support this purchase?

green-cobb

In the example of a Green Portrait Cobb, while the card has gone completely bonkers of late, the demand doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.  And 1000 some odd of a card supply is albeit not scarce, but very constrained considering one of the most popular pre-war cards in the hobby.  So, is the Cobb card overvalued?  Probably, but I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t continue to go higher.  It’s one of the most recognizable names in baseball history in one of the most recognized card sets in all the hobby.  What might slow this freight train down?

Well, the economy might.  The past years of card increases have been fueled by low unemployment, a big bull market run, a crypto boom (yeah i’m guessing some folks might have cashed in some bitcoin gains for vintage cards) and access to very cheap credit.  We can’t pinpoint a recession with any high probability but the indicators say that we are probably closer than we are further away.  Most well respected economists would agree that a recession is quite likely within the next two to three years.   But remember, the last recession in ’08, although it led to weakness in card pricing, wasn’t as decimating as many might have thought.

But if we also assume that a lot of the buying nowadays is coming from investors with deep pockets who might not have any care in the world about baseball cards, any sort of pricing panic might potentially lead to a big fallout in pricing.  Not saying it’s going to happen, just that we need to understand the risks.

So as for our bubble meter?

Initial Spark That Fuels the Bubble: Hard to evaluate this one, as vintage cards have remained consistently popular over time. While it’s impossible to point to one event that might have led to the recent surge, I can think of one notable event that could have been one very big reason.

Back in May of 2018, it was widely publicized that a ’93 SP Derek Jeter in Gem Mint (PSA 10) condition had sold for near $100K. IT was everywhere.  I think this hit a spot for a lot of collectors that might have formerly been active in the hobby during the 90’s.  The realization that a card that they might have had in their collection and even ripped open in a pack could be worth six figures was a totally new phenomenon.

What Has Fueled The Bubble?: I will stress that I don’t necessarily think we are in a bubble, maybe more of an over-extension in pricing at the very least.  But what has driven the increased interest in cards of late–it’s the continued momentum in pricing we’ve seen.   Higher prices equals more attention, plain and simple.

Uninformed Buyers? Yes, there are many uniformed buyers in this hobby, but I haven’t had anyone at Thanksgiving asking me about investing their retirement funds in Mickey Mantle’s (just yet!).

Some Other Risks to Consider

Vintage Card Prices Are Easy To Manipulate

The vintage card market is relatively thin, meaning that for most old examples, depending on the set of course, there is limited ‘supply’ for a particular card.  Now, let’s say for example there are only 100 or so copies in existence of a particular card that trades for around $500.  It wouldn’t be completely out of reach for someone with very deep pockets to corner around 20% of that particular card.  And given that most vintage collectors are hanging onto their prized collectibles, it might be hard for someone actually seeking this card to find one if someone is hoarding a significant portion of the available supply.

But how would we go about figuring out whether this is actually happening or not?  And if someone is actually doing this, would we consider this to be an illegal activity.  First, unless we have concrete information (texts, emails, voice taps) it’s pretty tough to figure out whether price manipulation is actually happening.  But, we can take an educated guess that it is probably happening with some select cards.

There has also been a lot of consignment in recent years to many prominent auction sellers on eBay.  I won’t name names as with a little digging it wouldn’t be too hard to find these sellers.  While I have no personal experience, I have read many accusations about suspect bidding, likely driven up by fake bids from the consignor.

The Generational Gap

We’ve talked about this before as one of the major sources of concern to think about for anyone thinking about cards as an investor.   There are some names that are just so recognizable that it likely doesn’t matter if someone ever saw them play a game or not.   Think about players like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Honus Wagner , Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in baseball.   As ‘baby-boomers’ die off will there be some sort of decrease in demand?  Combine this with the fact that MLB ratings are near an all time low and could it be that collectors just become disinterested in cards of old ball players?

Anecdotally speaking, most of the collectors I know that are collecting vintage stuff are in their early to late 40’s.  Some exceptions to this as I also know a select few in their 30’s that are collecting early tobacco and caramel cards.  Yet, I think the latter is more of an exception as it does feel that the hobby is dominated by that sub-group of collectors that were big into the hobby back in the 90’s and have returned with fistfuls of dollars to invest.

Thus, can the vintage hobby thrive with a population at the older end that is dying off  and is being supported mostly by the Gen-Xers with little interest from the millennial generation?  I think that maybe the Baby-Boomer argument is probably a bit overblown.  I do believe that there is risk to a downfall in pricing due to the age demographic concentration and the lack of interest in millennials in baseball cards in general.  But if we think about the fact that people are now living longer, it is likely a very long time before we might think about any sort of generational shift and downfall in the market.

Wall Street Like Inventions In The Hobby

In the housing bubble of 2008 it was greedy bankers creating exotic products that fueled the debt crazed rise and fall of housing prices.  Bitcoin has certainly had it’s own infusion of wall street like gimmicks.   And when PWCC created a new index devoted to baseball cards, some indicated that this might indeed be the top.   PWCC’s index doesn’t scare me all that much, as it provides a better barometer on pricing.

PWCC’s launch of what feels like a baseball card hedge fund is a bit more concerning.   Yes, I myself have said that cards could certainly be viewed a good investment portfolio diversifier.   Yet any increased proliferation of products designed to invest in cards for the sole purposed of outsized gains gets me worried.   How many higher tier cards could that fund invest in if it gets inundated with capital?  It’s not like buying shares of Apple or Amazon; there is very limited supply available on some cards, so these products have the possibility of driving returns to even more stratospheric price increases.

Also, there is no SEC (the Security and Exchange Commission that monitors stock market trading) in the baseball card world.  If companies were to launch new hedge fund type products that get inundated with capital, what would prevent them from, say loading up on 50% of the market of T206 Cobb Green Portrait cards?   They would pay a pretty penny to do so, but would very likely drive up the market prices enabling them to offload at a big profit to appease their investors.   This is something to definitely keep an eye on.

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