Is The Stock Market Becoming a Ponzi Scheme?

The convergence of the widespread use of 401k and similar retirement accounts coupled with the rise in index fund investing has created a Ponzi scheme-like dynamic with the stock market over the past 30+ years..

What is a Ponzi scheme? 

From Wikipedia, a Ponzi scheme “is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors.” Is the stock market truly a Ponzi scheme? No, but since 1980 it has taken on some similarities with a Ponzi scheme that investors should be aware of.

Stock Market Valuation to Scale

Most graphics of the stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Average) that include performance data before the 1980s, use a logarithmic scale. The log scale distorts the long-term variations in market value to make it appear that the changes over time are more consistent. On the chart below which uses a logarithmic scale, it visually doesn’t look like anything unusual happened around 1980. The only sizable blip in the trend is the Great Depression.


A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an unusual graphic of the stock market’s historical performance that surprised me because it was to scale. 


I was shocked to see that, relative to the performance in the last three decades, the previous eight decades were basically flat to include the Great Depression (now a very minor blip on the chart) and the industrial economic growth of the 50s and 60s. I wondered what happened around 1980 that exponentially changed the dynamics for stock market valuation. 

What Happened Around 1980?

Four major things: 1) invention of index funds (1971), 2) Individual Retirement Accounts or IRAs (1974), 3) the 401k plan (1978), and 4) increased institutional investment of pensions in the stock market. (Note that for this post I am using “401k” to mean all similar plans to include 401a, 403b, 457b, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).)

Jack Bogle invented index funds well before 1980, but they did not take off on a mega-scale until the 401k, IRAs, and remaining pension plans began growing in number and size and therefore dramatically increased their share of the stock market. 

Section 401k of the Revenue Act, which became the namesake for the retirement accounts it authorized, was passed on November 6, 1978. The first 401k plan was implemented 3 weeks later. Since then, public and private employers have gutted the traditional pension plan. Employers have either replaced pensions entirely with a 401k (sometimes with matching funds), or they (often government entities) have deeply cut the value of their pension plans and then offered a 401k option to help offset the lost value.

According to a 2021 CNBC article, “401(k) and other defined-contribution plans like it quickly replaced traditional pension plans. From 1980 through 2008, participants in pension plans fell from 38% to 20% of the U.S. workforce, while employees covered by defined-contribution plans jumped from 8% to 31%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Even though the number and dollar value of pensions has sharply declined since 1978, they still represented 10% of stock market value as of October 2020. 

So How Does This Create Ponzi Scheme Dynamics?

According to Annie Lowrey in an April 2021 Atlantic article, “[s]ome $11 trillion is now invested in index funds, up from $2 trillion a decade ago. And as of 2019, more money is invested in passive funds than in active funds in the United States.” 

The issue here is that index fund investing works differently than other types of investments. Most IRA, 401k, and pension accounts invest in index funds each month regardless of the performance of the market or any particular company in the market. 

Index funds are cap-weighted, meaning that if a large company like Google represents 5% of the value of the index (e.g. S&P 500) then every month passive investors (i.e., everyone with a 401k in the stock market) will invest 5% of their monthly retirement dollars on Google whether or not Google is a good investment right then. This monthly automaticity arbitrarily drives up the price of Google stock because the index must buy the stocks in the index at their cap weight. Likewise, every other company’s stocks in an index are also purchased independent of performance.

Many stock investors, especially those investing for retirement, are not selling their shares each month when these new index investment purchases need to be made. They want to avoid stock market volatility. This dynamic creates supply and demand price pressures that help keep the valuations going up. 

The growing demand for index fund investments drives up the valuation of the stock market. This helps explain, at least in part, the meteoric rise of the stock market’s valuation over the last three decades. 

It doesn’t matter if the company is actually worth what its stock is valued at as long as investors keep passively buying the stock at a high price and driving it higher. And if this dynamic sounds familiar, it is: this is similar to how new investors in a Ponzi scheme keep the returns high for the older scheme participants. 

The expansion of retirement account vehicles like the IRA and 401k, with their strong tax incentives coupled with the increased ease and lower costs of stock investing, have helped this trend grow. The big question is, when will the new money stop rolling in every month and the first investors start selling off more than they are investing? This turn of events could cause a partial collapse of stock valuation, create great losses, and leave the more recent investors waiting for long-term returns holding the bag – again, similar to the effects of a Ponzi scheme collapse.  

It’s Not Really a Ponzi Scheme, Right?

Right. A Ponzi scheme is illegal, and there is nothing illegal about the investment vehicles I’ve just described. BUT, there are some Ponzi scheme dynamics at play in today’s market. I recognize that a large part of the amazing overall stock performance that I have enjoyed over the last three decades, particularly since 2009, is in no small part due to my fellow index fund investors who continue to invest in the stock market every month, regardless of performance.

While the stock market will continue to respond positively and negatively to economic events (e.g., COVID-19, an oil crisis, AI, interest rates, etc.), market drops are dampened and gains are propelled by the drumbeat of the monthly capital infusions from index funds. 

I agree with the MorningStar MarketWatch assessment that the market is overvalued based on any measure. Much of this overvaluation can be attributed to the relentless monthly retirement stock investments (passive and active). This overvaluation should not pose a problem unless (until?) the infusions of new investments in the market become significantly less than the amounts being withdrawn by investors over a prolonged period.

To prevent this devaluation, we “older” investors need to keep encouraging new index fund investing among our fellow citizens until we have sold our shares. Then those investors will need to encourage future generations to do the same. The current structure of the stock market will continue to need new investors, investing monthly regardless of individual stocks’ performances, to keep that line on the graph moving upward.

So while I remain fully invested in the stock market, I also remain vigilant to mega trends that might indicate the tide is turning on the Ponzi-esque dynamics on the market from index fund investing.

After Almost Two Decades of Investing, Why Weren’t We Rich or at Least Well on Our Way?

I thought my wife and I were doing everything right to achieve a rich, free life. Avoid debt – check! Spend less than we earn – check! Invest the surplus – check! So, after almost two decades of investing, why weren’t we rich or at least well on our way?

This essay is published in J.L. Collins new book Pathfinders (Harriman House publishing) — a follow-on book to The Simple Path to Wealth capturing personal stories of people who applied the many financial concepts from the book. Pathfinders is available on Amazon and other places where books are sold.

When I calculated our net worth 19 years after we started investing, we had invested $103K in principal into IRAs but their value was only $92K. We had actually lost money! I had also lost $15K out of $50K invested in a taxable mutual fund account and all of the $5K invested in individual stocks.

I thought I had done my homework. I had read an investment book, read several articles on investing, and sought advice from friends, but it wasn’t until I read J.L. Collins’ book The Simple Path to Wealth that I finally understood that my investing problem was…me.

I have been frugal and a great saver my whole life but, as you can tell already, I was a terrible investor. J.L.’s description of the “typical investor”– who panics and sells when the market takes a tumble, waiting to reinvest cautiously long after the market recovers – described me perfectly.

In 1992, when I was a young lieutenant in the US Air Force, I understood that investing in stocks for the long term was the path to financial success. My wife and I each opened a traditional IRA (this was before Roth IRAs) and invested in mutual funds.

With monthly automatic purchases, we invested the annual limit and put the rest in a savings account. After 5 years, our $17K invested had grown to over $90K and our savings was over $90k. So far so good, right? But, then along comes yours truly. Here are the most egregious examples of my rocky investing.

Individual Stock Picking Fail

In 1997, I purchased 1,000 shares of Boston Chicken (later known as Boston Market). We had recently lived in Boston and I loved our nearby Boston Chicken restaurant. I was convinced that home meal replacement was a growing trend and thus a great investment.

Unfortunately, the company was cooking more than delicious chicken. Just weeks before I purchased the stock (and unbeknownst to me), the company revealed it was recycling money by loaning to its franchisees to build new restaurants, masking its true, troubling financial picture–huge debt.

Boston Chicken soon filed for bankruptcy. I watched that stock drop from around $5 per share to pennies as the company financially collapsed. Believing that I simply needed to learn more about stock investing, I read The Motley Fool Investment Guide. It was no fun to read their take that delicious chicken does not necessarily make a great investment. I learned picking individual stocks can be very risky.

Buy High, Sell Low?

Not to be deterred, I continued to closely watch the markets for three years, saw their year-over-year gains, and thought: We can’t miss out on the tech stock boom any longer. So, in January 2000, after the Y2K scare passed but right before the bubble burst, I invested a quarter of our net worth ($50K) into mutual funds (half in a tech fund and half in an S&P 500 index fund).

Yep, I bought high, joining the excitement of a hot market. But the value of my shares burst along with the bubble. I held them for a measly four years, and when there was little to no recovery, I sold our shares, locking in a $15K loss.

I didn’t yet understand how to hold and wait for recovery. In fact, many of the remaining companies, such as Amazon and eBay, would eventually fully recover and make a lot of money. Sigh. Luckily, we left alone our only remaining investments–our IRAs–and they continued to grow… until the Great Recession hit.

In September 2008, when the Great Recession was in full swing and the stock market was way down, I convinced myself and my wife that we needed to pull our IRA investments to safety and avoid further “losses.” So with much angst, I transferred our IRAs into money market funds and locked in losses of approximately 25% percent each.

The recession made me wary of the market, so I kept our investments in money market accounts until February 2014, when I felt I couldn’t let the market rise without us any longer. By then, the market had long recovered, but my jitters remained. I was certain (as were many pundits) that the market would once again drop.

There Has to Be a Better Way

Finally, in early 2018, I found the Financial Independence movement and took on a new perspective of how to build our financial future. I discovered J.L. Collins on the ChooseFI podcast. I checked out The Simple Path to Wealth from my local library and read it from cover to cover. I gave it to my wife. I bought copies to share with my kids and friends.

Reading the book felt like J.L. was speaking to me directly, as if he knew me personally and my poor investing history. His approach is so simple, yet it eluded me for years. Armed with J.L.’s wise words (we began to think of him as “Uncle J.L.”), I now understood the importance of investing in broad-based index funds, paying low investment fees, and giving like a billionaire. But most importantly, I learned how to hold (and even buy) when the market is falling and sell (rebalance) when it is up.

Testing My New Resolve

My first big test was in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the market plummeted. In the past, I would have pulled out my money after it dropped precipitously, but now I had Uncle J.L. over my shoulder reassuring me to stay the course.

I didn’t sell. In fact, I confidently optimized our available investment dollars and shifted into more stock. I now trusted that, eventually, the market would rise again.

In early January 2022, I rebalanced our portfolio, selling stocks at their peak and buying government securities (I needed to wait on bonds as interest rates were rising). In early June 2022, when the market dropped 15%, I shifted funds from government securities to buy stocks “on sale.”

When it further dropped into bear market territory, I purchased more stocks at a deeper discount. If it drops past 25% or even 30%, I’ll do it again. Since reading The Simple Path, our stock portfolio has increased by 60% and we have achieved financial independence.

I am no longer investing with angst and a trail of lost opportunities. Now, my wife and I are investing thoughtfully, our eyes on the horizon, confident the market will eventually recover. Our two children, both in their early 20s, are getting a great start to a lifetime of smart investing. Thanks, Uncle J.L.