Investors love to rip into the financial media, and with good reason. So much of what passes for “investor education” is little more than worthless forecasts and attempts to explain random noise (“Canadian markets down on disappointing Portuguese GDP report”). More insidious are the pundits who do little more than talk their own book.
There’s a lot of this familiar criticism in Clash of the Financial Pundits, but what makes this new book so compelling is that the harshest words come from media commentators themselves. Authors Jeff Macke (formerly of CNBC’s Fast Money) and Joshua Brown (a CNBC contributor who blogs at The Reformed Broker) have set out to help readers and viewers be smart consumers of financial media. What should you heed and what should you ignore? The highlights are the detailed interviews with TV pundits, serious journalists, celebrity money managers and the inimitable Jim Cramer.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the relentless pressure on the financial media to produce entertainment, even if it means giving investors terrible advice. The easiest way to ensure you’ll never be invited back on CNBC is to admit you don’t know where the market is headed, say you share the consensus view, or recommend something prudent like a diversified index fund portfolio. The producers urge guests to make bold and outrageous calls, because that’s what viewers want. “People have been shown to prefer commentators with unwavering confidence over those who are more reserved and have actually gotten things right,” the authors write. “The research shows that in the presence of someone speaking emphatically about events to come, people subconsciously shut off the part of their brain that reminds them this cannot actually be done.”
One of the most constructive ideas in the book comes from Barry Ritholtz, who shares his method for holding forecasters accountable: “When someone says something I think is either outrageous or foolish, I diary it.” He uses a service called followupthen.com, which will send you an email on the anniversary of the forecast (or any other date you choose) so you can see how well it held up. It’s a brilliant idea, because the usual pattern is for pundits to be hailed as geniuses when they make a good call and simply forgotten when they make a bad one.
Some of the comments in the interviews are a little rich. Jim Cramer, for example, is an extremely smart man, but it’s hard to take seriously his assertion that Mad Money “informs and it educates,” or that he does the show because of “the satisfaction of knowing that I can help people.” Especially because a few pages later he says, “I decided I’ve got to have a little more entertainment value because I don’t want to get cancelled. I’m a commercial endeavor. It’s like the professors who say, ‘Jim you should come out every day and night and just say buy index ETFs.’ Well, you know, that’s not a show and people obviously want a show.”
They do indeed. But the real insight happens when you realize that investing isn’t about making a show, and the smartest decisions you’ll ever make are likely to be boring. If you think managing your portfolio is entertaining, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Read this book with a pencil in hand so you can mark the many nuggets of wisdom that will make you view the financial media with a more skeptical eye.