We've often mocked what passes for analysis on the message boards over at some competing investing sites. Many of them seem like little more than wastelands in the ether for people to rant and throw "yo mama!" barbs around.
Compared with the Motley Fool Hidden Gems discussion boards, for example, where subscribers often feel that the critiques in posts are worth the subscription price alone, the "eureka" moment you feel when you do get a cogent analysis on a site like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) can feel like finding a pearl in a mountain of shucked oysters.
Still, when you venture into these territories, you have to have thick skin and be prepared for sharp retorts and stinging rebukes. More than one commentator has thought of unmonitored message boards as akin to a Wild West shootout.
That's what makes Yahoo!'s decision to ban freelance stock analyst David Phillips from its message boards for purported terms-of-service violations so absurd. Phillips shares his knowledge in a blog called 10Q Detective, which delves into a company's footnotes to get to the bottom of an investment. Lately, he's been questioning the financials of a company called Raser Technologies (NYSE: RZ ) , a geothermal power-development and technology-licensing operator.
Recently, Phillips used his blog to question Raser's description of its first geothermal power station as a success. As he pointed out on 10Q Detective, the station hasn't undergone flow testing, an integral part of a plant's viability, and it still needs third-party analysis before Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER ) will finance construction. In the past, Phillips' blog detailed how Raser was originally an electromagnetic-technology purveyor that hyped its achievements the way many penny-stock mills do.
It's not as if he was Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI ) Chairman John Mackey, posting under an assumed name and extolling the virtues of his business. He's not Henry Blodget, accused of boosting stocks to the public but disparaging them in private. He isn't Bear Stearns hedge-fund manager Ralph Cioffi, accused of encouraging investors to put more money into his faltering funds at the same time he was withdrawing his own capital. Many of the messages Phillips posted on Yahoo!'s Raser board either related the information he uncovered about the company, or linked to his blog posts about them.
Shares of Raser, which hit its 52-week high at about $18 a stub last December, have tumbled by half since then. Raser partisans are reportedly smarting as a result, and they've mounted a campaign to have him banned. It seems the company's efforts at censorship were at last successful; Phillips reports that Yahoo! has banned him from posting to their boards.
You've got to wonder what the site monitors were thinking. Yahoo! has fallen behind Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) in the search space. Its management screwed up a potentially lucrative merger with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) . And social investing sites such as Motley Fool CAPS, Stockpickr, and Marketocracy are steadily gaining new investor adherents who like to mix opinion with stock picks. Legitimate message boards appreciate a diversity of opinions about a company, because knowing the downside risks of an investment can be just as important -- if not more so -- than understanding the upside.
Silencing outspoken critics doesn't seem like the action of a company radically remaking its business. Then again, maybe it does. Much like a company management that decides to divert attention from poor operations by taking on naked short sellers, perhaps lashing out at stock analysts will become another leading indicator of a business's decline.