My fellow Americans, as we embark on this monthlong campaign to help you secure your financial freedom in the face of a scary global economic environment, I have only one thing to say.
Doh! Sorry, wrong speech . Here it is.
"Don't believe the hype."
Again with the tune-out
I beat this particular horse carcass with disturbing frequency, but I figure it can always use a few more thumps.
The enormous, overstuffed beast of the business press does not necessarily exist to get things right, to put news into proper context, or least of all to make you any money. It simply is. But something that large, in all its bloated, pestilent is-ness, needs a lot of feeding. The easiest way for editors to "feed the beast" is to endlessly discuss the latest economic indicators and what they'll do to the market.
That's what I want you to ignore, because it's not likely to help you make better stock investment decisions. Here's why.
For starters, no one agrees on what exactly is going on in the overall economy anyway. Which it do I want to watch? Which macroeconomic thingamajigy should I tap into to secure my investing fortune? Job growth? Wage growth? Unemployment? Budget deficit? Trade deficit? Interest rates? Inflation?
Let's say it is inflation.
What is it?
Now that we know what it is, we can do something clever with it, right?
Inflation. OK. That means I should rebalance my portfolio and get more exposure to . Wait. Is inflation up these days or not? By the government's figures, it seems to be rising. But given the way housing costs are figured (a fancy and misleading bit of math involving pretend-rent on the homes we own, though we never intended to rent them), the recent inflationary upticks -- based on increasing rents -- may well be overstated. This would also mean that inflation was being understated during the past years' supposedly "low" inflation growth. Dangit. Stupid it can't even stand still.
What does it mean?
OK, for the sake of, um . newsworthiness, let's just say inflation is on the rise. After all, Mr. Fed Chief says that inflation is doing something to his comfort zone -- too much information, I know. OK, so now that we know about the itch in Bernanke's comfort zone, what's going to happen next?
What will it do?
Well that's simple, right? If inflation is high, then Bernanke will scratch his comfort zone and increase the prime rate! Now we're getting somewhere.
When rates go up, bank stocks like Citigroup (NYSE: C ) will get pounded, because rising rates are "bad for banks." (I heard that on CNBC). Then again, economic growth will be choked off, sending steelmakers like Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) into the dumper. Also, housing will crack in several ways.
In that meltdown, the huge employment boost that building has created will dry up when Pulte (NYSE: PHM ) and others stop building, and materials companies like Headwaters (NYSE: HW ) will get spanked. Finally, people will stop using their houses for ATMs. That means fewer iPods from Best Buy (Nasdaq: BBY ) and the like, fewer $500 purses from Coach (NYSE: COH ) , and fewer trip tickets from Expedia (Nasdaq: EXPE ) . So profits will fall across the board, taking stock prices with them, right?
It's not as simple as it seems
Well, except that we don't know whether "I'm not an inflation wimp" Ben will continue to raise rates or not, despite all of the well-scripted tough-guy talk. As for the fallout from higher interest rates, well, let's just say history isn't clear on the way it hits stock prices.
Even when monetary policy produces the desired economic results -- remember, it doesn't always work out as planned -- macroeconomic performance doesn't really correlate with stock returns, as I found out when I looked at 80 years' worth of stock returns and interest rate hikes.
To take just one counterintuitive example from a period that many of you may recall, during the years 1979 to 1980, interest rates were jacked up from 11.75% to 21.5%. Did stocks get killed? Hardly. The S&P 500 Index returned 11.6% and 28% those two years, followed by a 10% dip the next year, and then two more years of solid gains (15% in 1982; 17% in 1983).
How's that possible? Simple: The market is a complex animal. Future stock prices don't follow abstract rules. They are determined by multiple, ever-shifting factors, including investors' hopes and fears. If everyone thinks things will be terrible, stocks may already trade lower than they would otherwise. When the storm clears, or rate-tightening ends, those stocks will likely zoom up again.
Remember one thing
I don't want any of you to get the idea that I don't think any of it matters. I just want to make it clear that if you don't know which it you're looking at, what it actually is, what it means, or where it's going, you'll have a pretty impossible time coming up with an investment plan to cope with it. The boring (and annoying) truth is that there are no easy answers. So do yourself a favor. Tune out the generalizations and talking heads, and just keep investing.
Don't have time to ponder all of the details? Save as much as you can, and tuck it into a broad-based index fund like an S&P 500 tracking fund. History shows that it's a good way to keep your money growing. If you've got the time and the interest, as most Fools do, dig even deeper and find companies that can help you outperform the index.
Market-beating managers make their money investing in one company at a time, finding undervalued firms and consistent long-term growers. If you want any help with that, we've got plenty of blue-chip places for you to begin.
For more articles in this series:
- Plan for All Seasons: Introduction
- When Animals Attack!
- A Retirement Plan for All Seasons
- The Summer of Our Discontent
- Planning for the Unthinkable
- Terrorism and Market Preparation
- Disaster-Proof Your Prized Possessions
Seth Jayson was with it once, but then they changed what it was. Now what he's with isn't it, and what's it seems weird and scary. At the time of publication, he had no positions in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.