Investment Pornography, Part 1

Caught your attention, didn’t I?  Please don’t be offended by the title of this post, and please don’t snigger over it.  This is serious business, after all. Also called “Financial Pornography,” investment pornography consists of (1) alluring magazine cover headlines promising juicy riches, (2) articles featuring exciting ways to capitalize on supposed opportunities and (3) outlandish claims and predictions that may, in fact, be bad for your financial health. Finally, it has no redeeming value whatsoever (except that it is good for a laugh).

When I go to conferences held by Dimensional Fund Advisors, one of the best run and most respected mutual fund companies, the lecture known affectionately as “Investment Pornography” generally gets the most attention and the most nodding heads of recognition. The presentation consists of articles from popular finance magazines followed by a quick analysis of what actually happened. Punchline: They were spectacularly wrong, time and time again.

Future posts will cover articles that are way too optimistic and were written simply to get you riled up enough to buy a magazine, newspaper or investment newsletter. Today’s topic is of the other kind of Investment Pornography, the alarming article that promotes fear. This is the other side of the outlandish approach to getting your attention.

Sympathy and Recognition

I feel sorry for a journalist who covers the stock markets. A writer typically takes the financial news of the day (which is, more often than not, pretty muddled), and tries to make some sense of it by quoting various people who at least sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

The fact is that sometimes stock prices go up and sometimes they go down, and sometimes they don’t do anything. And no one can predict what is going to happen next. That’s why it’s best to be a buy and hold type investor. But, really, who would read that story over and over? Would you?

So although writers try to be accurate, relevant and interesting, they frequently stray into making predictions. In my opinion, trying to predict the future is futile, and can be downright dangerous. Sometimes a writer will positively mislead you and convince you to do something you will regret.

Fear Mongering

A year ago, on March 6, 2009, I took the New York Times to task for fear mongering at (possibly) just the wrong time. By coincidence the stock market hit its actual bottom a year ago on March 9th, the next business day. Read that post for an egregious article that, if followed, would have cost you dearly.

While, in general, I love the New York Times’ reporting, here is a recent example of fear mongering from the January 25th article, Volatility and Politics Spark Fears of Market Correction, by Javier C. Hernandez.

Here are some questionable quotes with my comments:

“Brace yourself for another wild ride on Wall Street.” (Sounds scary, doesn’t it?)

“Worries about the strength of the global recovery and proposals from Washington to clamp down on banks have sent fresh jitters through financial markets, prompting chatter among traders that stocks could be poised for that rare but alarming phenomenon: a correction.” (Rare and alarming? Not really; it happens more often than you’d think.)

“Over three tense days last week, stocks tumbled nearly 5 percent; the Dow posted triple-digit losses on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, ending the week at its lowest level since November.” (So? Five percent declines are quite common and mean nothing. Three days should definitely not make anyone “tense.”)

“Some analysts believe the downward momentum may continue.” (True, but other analysts don’t.)

“A confluence of all those headwinds creates a perfect storm of uncertainty on a market that had already been a bit vulnerable to a pullback,” said Quincy M. Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial. (“Perfect storm”- nice phrasing; I sure hope that it didn’t convince you to abandon a well-thought out plan, though.)

“A severe decline in the market is far from assured. There are no certainties on Wall Street, and stocks have been known to bounce back after similarly turbulent periods.” (Thank you, thank you, thank you! I couldn’t have said it better myself.)

“In the near term, an unusual degree of uncertainty may bring more losses to the stock market.” (Yes, and then again it may not.)

Fast Forward Five Weeks

By contrast, after the market had gone up, the New York Times had this March 5th article: Markets Find the Upside of the Jobs Report also by Mr. Hernandez.

What a difference five weeks makes! Now, after the stock market has gone back up, we read “better-than-expected snapshot of unemployment in the United States lifted Wall Street on Friday, reinforcing hopes that the job market — and the broader economy — might be gaining strength.”

Here are more quotes with my comments.

“The fact that unemployment is not getting worse is great news for the market.” (First of all, it is possible that statistically the recession has already ended. Second, the unemployment news tells us only what has already happened, not necessarily what the stock market will do.)

“In light of that uncertainty, the question for Wall Street is whether the upward push can endure.” (You are free to guess what the stock market will do short-term, but no one knows.)

“The major indexes have recovered from their losses in January, and they are in positive territory for the year. Last week brought strong gains, with all three indexes ending the week more than 2 percent higher.” (Good thing we didn’t bail out and sell after reading that January 25th article, hmm?)

Enough

I am not picking on the New York Times. It is a must read for me every day, for its reporting and also for its opinion columnists. In truth, if I had to give up either reading the New York Times or watching TV, it would be a difficult choice.

And the New York Times is certainly not alone in its fear-mongering role; almost without trying, you can easily find dozens of predictive articles in most, if not all, national publications.   Money magazine has had many silly articles that would have cost you big bucks.  SmartMoney is frequently not-so-smart.   Business Week and Forbes should be ashamed. Time magazine is well known for its lurid front covers of Depression-like photos.

My advice is to ignore such articles, because they are in fact “Financial Pornography.” They attempt to, and often succeed in, getting people riled up, by either pandering to fear or greed. More likely than not, they are heavily influenced by what has already happened.

If they correctly predict what the markets subsequently do, it is merely a coincidence, in my opinion. Save your time and your money. Pay no attention to sensational articles with worrying predictions, or ones that identify sure-fire investments for that matter. By the time you read the story, any relevant facts are already reflected in today’s prices. It is too late to consider what you read to be useful, actionable information.

Do not be influenced by short term fluctuations or worrying articles. It is much better to have a plan and to stick with it.

Photo by:  D. Sharon Pruitt

About the author

Roger Streit, CFP®

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