I was once asked, at a journalism conference, how I defined my job. I said: My job is to write the exact same thing between 50 and 100 times a year in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will ever think I am repeating myself.
That’s because good advice rarely changes, while markets change constantly. The temptation to pander is almost irresistible. And while people need good advice, what they want is advice that sounds good.
The advice that sounds the best in the short run is always the most dangerous in the long run. Everyone wants the secret, the key, the roadmap to the primrose path that leads to El Dorado: the magical low-risk, high-return investment that can double your money in no time. Everyone wants to chase the returns of whatever has been hottest and to shun whatever has gone cold. Most financial journalism, like most of Wall Street itself, is dedicated to a basic principle of marketing: When the ducks quack, feed ‘em.
In practice, for most of the media, that requires telling people to buy Internet stocks in 1999 and early 2000; explaining, in 2005 and 2006, how to “flip” houses; in 2008 and 2009, it meant telling people to dump their stocks and even to buy “leveraged inverse” exchange-traded funds that made explosively risky bets against stocks; and ever since 2008, it has meant touting bonds and the “safety trade” like high-dividend-paying stocks and so-called minimum-volatility stocks.
It’s no wonder that, as brilliant research by the psychologist Paul Andreassen showed many years ago, people who receive frequent news updates on their investments earn lower returns than those who get no news. It’s also no wonder that the media has ignored those findings. Not many people care to admit that they spend their careers being part of the problem instead of trying to be part of the solution.
My job, as I see it, is to learn from other people’s mistakes and from my own. Above all, it means trying to save people from themselves. As the founder of security analysis, Benjamin Graham, wrote in The Intelligent Investor in 1949: “The investor’s chief problem – and even his worst enemy – is likely to be himself.”
One of the main reasons we are all our worst enemies as investors is that the financial universe is set up to deceive us.
From financial history and from my own experience, I long ago concluded that regression to the mean is the most powerful law in financial physics: Periods of above-average performance are inevitably followed by below-average returns, and bad times inevitably set the stage for surprisingly good performance.
But humans perceive reality in short bursts and streaks, making a long-term perspective almost impossible to sustain – and making most people prone to believing that every blip is the beginning of a durable opportunity.
My role, therefore, is to bet on regression to the mean even as most investors, and financial journalists, are betting against it. I try to talk readers out of chasing whatever is hot and, instead, to think about investing in what is not hot. Instead of pandering to investors’ own worst tendencies, I try to push back. My role is also to remind them constantly that knowing what not to do is much more important than what to do. Approximately 99% of the time, the single most important thing investors should do is absolutely nothing.
There’s no smugness or self-satisfaction in this sort of role. The competitive and psychological pressure to give bad advice is so intense, the demand to produce noise is so unremitting, that I often feel like a performer onstage before a hostile audience that is forever hissing and throwing rotten fruit at him. It’s hard for your head to swell when you spend so much of your time ducking.
On the other hand, you can’t be a columnist for The Wall Street Journal without a thick skin. I have been called an ignoramus, an idiot and dozens of epithets unprintable in a family newspaper;
accused of front-running or trading ahead of my own columns;
assailed as being in the pockets of short-sellers betting against regular investors; described as being a close friend of a person I’ve never met in my entire life;
decried as being biased in favor of high-frequency traders and as being biased against them;
and told, almost every week, that I lack even the most basic understanding of how the financial markets work.
The perennial refrain from critics is: You just don’t get it. Internet stocks / housing / energy prices / financial stocks / gold / silver / bonds / high-yield stocks / you-name-it can’t go down. This time is different, and here’s why.
But this time is never different. History always rhymes. Human nature never changes. You should always become more skeptical of any investment that has recently soared in price, and you should always become more enthusiastic about any asset that has recently fallen in price. That’s what it means to be an investor.
When, in the fourth quarter of 2008 and 2009, I repeatedly urged investors to hold fast to their stocks, I was called a shill for Wall Street and helplessly naïve.
When I took a skeptical look at Congressman Ron Paul’s gold-heavy portfolio in December 2011, angry readers called me “weak minded,” “ignorant,” “pathetic” and a member of “the big bank lobby.” (Gold was around $1,613 per ounce then; it was last sighted this week sinking below $1,230.)
When, only a few weeks ago, I warned that any hints of a tighter policy from the Federal Reserve could crush recently trendy assets like real-estate investment trusts, high-dividend stocks and “low volatility” stocks, readers protested that I didn’t even know the difference between a rise in interest rates and “tapering,” or a decline in the rate at which the Fed buys back bonds. I know the difference – but, with many of these assets down by up to 10% since then, it isn’t clear that all investors knew the difference.
Every columnist knows that if you ever write something that didn’t make anybody angry, you blew it. People don’t like having their preconceived notions jolted, and doubt and ambiguity are alien to the way most investors think.
That’s why I’m realistic. I don’t ever expect to convert all my readers to my viewpoint. I would be a fool to think I could. But I’d be a worse fool if I ever stopped trying.
So you can understand exactly where I am coming from, I will tell you a story.
My senior year of college, my father was dying of lung cancer. Most weekends, I would take the train up from New York City to Fort Edward (then the nearest train station to where I grew up in rural upstate New York).
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