For any stock investors who were active traders during the late 1990s, mentioning 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 cryptocurrencies. Cards even experienced their own bubble during the early 90s.
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 collectors 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.
A recent discussion at the Net54 forums got my juices flowing to write this post. You can read it yourself, but the gist 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. We have advocated that vintage cards can 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 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 1999-2000, the real estate bubble in 2008, or even the last baseball card bubble in the early 90s, 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 significant change in how 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 these companies bit the dust, absent a few gems (notably Amazon).
With the previous card bubble in the early 90s, it was the realization that little pieces of cardboard initially thought of as a way to dress up bicycle spokes might be worth something.
A new market formed and led to a significant rise in vintage cards and 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 without needing a third-party intermediary.
And while the bitcoin story is still somewhat alive and well, the perception is that cryptocurrencies 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 fivefold 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 firsthand was indeed a life-changing experience.
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 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. The auction prices of vintage cards, such as the T206 Wagner and the ’52 Topps Mantle, reached epic heights.
Collectors without thousands of dollars to invest could visit one of the many local card shops 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 hoping they would become the next Griffey Jr or McGwire.
I can attest to this fact firsthand 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 recall my brother purchasing a thousand card lots of Ellis Burks (1988 Fleer rookies), and a similar amount of Jody Reed rookie cards.
Yes, we were in Boston, and we thought these guys had a big future in the big leagues. But looking back, I think it should have been a telltale sign that we could order 1000 cards of any player we wanted many times over for pennies on the dollar.
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 massive rise in prices, but part was just an intellectual curiosity about the subject. The underlying principles of a bankless, third-partyless, frictionless currency seemed very interesting.
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 other cryptocurrencies. As a VERY informed investor, I dabbled a bit, made a few bucks, and moved on as I still had some questions about ‘investing’ in something that I couldn’t 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 knowledge of 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 feel the bubble bursting and popping at the same time. Sometimes it’s not so evident, but in the case of Bitcoin, it just felt like the insanity had run its course.
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 late to the party.
So, Is This Current Card Market A Bubble?
I’ll immediately ignore the pricing for modern-day cards and the whole 1-of-1 autograph and insert hysteria. That market itself may be in its own mini-bubble, but our discussion focuses 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.
The question is, after a while, who can continue to afford to purchase these cards? I know that many fellow collectors and I 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 exist? Ask yourself this anytime you make a significant investment in a card; do the supply and demand numbers support this purchase?
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 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 increase. 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 likely within the next two to three years.
But remember, the last recession in 2008, 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 pricing panic might potentially lead to a significant 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 a big reason.
I think this hit a spot for many collectors that might have formerly been active in the hobby during the ’90s. The realization that a card they might have had in their collection and even ripped open in a pack could be worth six figures was a 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 is the continued pricing momentum we’ve seen. Higher prices equal more attention, plain and simple.
Uninformed Buyers? Yes, there are many uninformed 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, there is a limited ‘supply’ for a particular card. Let’s say, for example, there are only 100 copies of a particular card that trades for around $500.
It wouldn’t be entirely out of reach for someone with 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 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 happening or not? And if someone is 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 happening.
But we can guess it is probably happening with some select cards.
There has also been a lot of consignment to many prominent auction sellers on eBay in recent years. 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 discussed this before as one of the significant sources of concern for anyone thinking about cards as an investor.
Some names are so recognizable that it likely doesn’t matter if someone ever saw them play a game. Think about players like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, and Mickey Mantle in baseball.
As ‘baby boomers die off, will there be some 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 collectors I know collecting vintage stuff are in their early to late 40s. Some exceptions to this, as I also know a select few in their 30s 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 90s 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 the Baby Boomer argument is a bit overblown.
I believe there is a risk of 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 consider that people are now living longer, it is likely a very long time before we might think about any generational shift and downfall in the market.
Wall Street Like Inventions In The Hobby
In the housing bubble of 2008, greedy bankers created exotic products that fueled the debt-crazed rise and fall of housing prices. Bitcoin has undoubtedly had its own infusion of wall street gimmicks.
And when PWCC created a new index devoted to baseball cards, some indicated that this might be the top. PWCC’s index doesn’t scare me all that much, as it provides a better barometer for pricing.
PWCC’s launch of what feels like a baseball card hedge fund is a bit more concerning. I have said that cards could be considered a good diversifier in an investment portfolio.
Yet, any increased proliferation of products designed to invest in cards for outsized gains worries me. 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; a limited supply is available on some cards so that these products can drive returns to even more stratospheric price increases.
Also, no SEC (the Security and Exchange Commission monitors stock market trading) exists 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 significant profit to appease their investors.
This is something to keep an eye on.