Everybody's Lying to You

OK, maybe not everyone's lying to you, but it sure does feel that way.

You don't have to go far to catch an earful of big-fish stories and half-baked forecasts coming out of Wall Street, Washington, and the boob tube.

Witness the Moody's (NYSE: MCO  ) spokesperson who said, "Moody's has strong policies in place to manage potential conflicts of interest." Yet court documents allege that "unbeknownst to investors at the time, the rating agencies' compensation was contingent upon the receipt of desired ratings ... and only in the event that the transaction closed with those ratings."

Everyone has some vested interest in coloring his or her version of the truth. Whether they're padding their pockets, protecting their reputations, or making headlines, everyone has a motive. The trick is to separate motives from facts. While aligning your interests with the truth doesn't guarantee success, it sure beats chasing down a pack of lies.

Here are three economic fibs you should disregard.

Lie No. 1: Consumer spending will solve our problems
While the National Retail Federation may love articles like Newsweek's "Stop Saving Now," such commentaries are reckless attempts to reinflate the consumer credit bubble and inflate readership. In this particular essay, the author even labels savers as "hoarders" and encourages businesses "to roll the dice."

On the contrary, consumers and businesses need to spend prudently, save frequently, and invest intelligently. Thankfully, Americans are consuming more intelligently, bending on brand, and seeking out Costco's (NYSE: COST  ) Kirkland Signature and Target's (NYSE: TGT  ) Archer Farms private-label products.The move toward cheaper goods has left premium retailers such as Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI  ) fighting to prove their bargain bona fides. In short, the overwhelming consumer trend looks down on spending and gives a thumbs-up to saving.

Based on data in a recent New York Times article, consumers have even turned toward old-school home economics: Coupon redemptions climbed 23% in the first half of this year. Amazingly, the top coupon users are originating from households earning $70,000 or more. Little wonder that BJ's Wholesale (NYSE: BJ  ) accepts manufacturer coupons and reports a significant increase in coupon use among its members. Finally, it's hip to clip!

Lie No. 2: Housing will bounce back
Real estate doesn't bounce. Not only is appreciation dead for now, it may never have existed in the first place. Dennis Cauchon made that point in a USA TODAY report, with data showing that "the average annual investment return [in real estate] from 1950-2000 was less than one-half of 1% per year, after adjusting for inflation."

Housing has two major purposes: a place to live and an investment. When you buy a home to live in, your goal is to acquire a dwelling that brings you pleasure, while carrying a cost of ownership that is competitive with what you would otherwise pay in rent.

If you buy for investment purposes, you need to perform a discounted cash flow analysis based on the estimated rental cash flows. Either way, appreciation should not be part of the equation.

With unemployment still on the rise, housing inventories still sky-high, and the pending defaults on "pay option" and interest-only loans looming, the business models of homebuilders such as Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL  ) and Hovnanian Enterprises (NYSE: HOV  ) will likely remain impaired for the foreseeable future. Ironically, with rock-bottom interest rates, one-time tax credits, and falling prices, there's never been a better time to buy your first home.

Lie No. 3: (Insert name here) is too big to fail.
Don't believe the hype; no company is too big to fail. Even nations are not too big to fail, as demonstrated by the fall of Rome and the decline of the British Empire. Instead, these institutions are so globally intertwined that their failures would cause side effects unbearable to business leaders and elected officials alike. Thus, there's a difference between being too big to fail, and being too important to fail.

Would Americans have accepted the loss of their life savings beyond the FDIC threshold? Could the country have stomached endless lines of irate customers demanding their deposits from their seemingly safe national bank of choice?

There's no doubt we could have survived it, but politicians tend to dislike civil unrest, and business owners aren't fond of riots. The "too big to fail" travesty seems like an avoidable consequence of bank centralization. Keep in mind that between 1984 and 2003, the size of our banking system declined by almost 48%, as 15,084 entities consolidated into 7,842.

That's why superstar analyst Meredith Whitney's idea to supercharge regional banks, instead of feeding the national lenders, appears to be an interesting alternative. It would be refreshing to see local institutions allocating more capital, instead of watching national megabank zombies hoard liquidity.

Believe your lying eyes
Tall tales are common when it comes to matters of money, but don't let the hot air take you off course. The key is not to debate opinions, but to explore facts. No one can predict the economy's behavior, so why try? Instead, focus on great businesses that execute, and management teams that don't lie to you.

Foolish stock experts David and Tom Gardner avoid fish tales. This pair of straight shooters take their big catches in stride, and don't lament the ones that got away.

As the advisors of our Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter, they're dedicated to discovering great businesses, and exposing the market's dirty little secrets. They aren't afraid to throw the stinkers overboard. As a result, Tom and David's picks have handily outperformed the S&P 500 since their newsletter service's inception in 2002.

Can you handle the truth? Click here to see which companies passed the test in Stock Advisor. A trial is free for 30 days, including full privileges to the service.

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This article was originally published on May 18, 2009. It has been updated.

Fool analyst Andy Louis-Charles doesn't own shares in any company mentioned, but he has been known to clip a coupon or three. Costco, Moody's, and Whole Foods are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Costco and Moody's are Inside Value picks. The Fool owns shares of Costco. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 26, 2009, at 9:45 AM, kpepps17 wrote:

    I like the description... no appreciation for housing. That was the problem. There was no appreciation. No appreciation for quality. No appreciation for builders. People wanted housing fast and furious. People wanted to squabble over price like it was a car they were purchasing. Builders were forced to compete on production and not quality. Now the cheap pieces of &^%? are showing the defects. Vinyl siding is falling from the sheathing, free umbrellas with every roof,and the you cannot see that from my house mentality is finally rearing its ugly head. You just bought yourself a $500,000 glorified mobile home.....sucker.

  • Report this Comment On September 26, 2009, at 11:13 AM, plange01 wrote:

    the rating agencys are being used as scapegoats.the fact is no none knew how credit default swaps and derivitives worked and no one knew how much trouble they would and still are causing....

  • Report this Comment On September 27, 2009, at 10:12 AM, SteveTheInvestor wrote:

    I agree with kpepps to some extent. Just down the road from us some years ago they built an entire neighborhood of McMansions (300K and up). I would drive by daily and observe the progress.

    One thing I did note is that when the roofs were being shingled, they did not bother with either water shield along the edges or tar/felt paper on the roof. They just nailed the shingles onto the roof decking. That is just beyond sleazy. A house in that price range and they can't even install a decent roof.

    It makes me wonder how many builders will face lawsuits due to shoddy construction.

  • Report this Comment On September 27, 2009, at 3:31 PM, BucketOfOnions wrote:

    Capitalism is a faith based system. We would like to think it wasn't, we would all like to think it was scientific, perfectly responsive to supply and demand. But it isn't so. It is based on faith, faith in the future. While capitalism is not as ambitious as its defeated foe, Marxism, we are equally mistaken to believe, as the Marxists did, that it is a scientific and perfect solution for our future. Capitalism needs faith as much as are dogmatic religions do. Without out Faith in the future capitalism is doomed, and the current recession is a "dark night of the soul" for capitalism.

    The world financial markets lost faith in our real estate market, and the complex derivatives that it had invested so heavily in. Quickly the whole house of cards began to collapse, and now it is being held up with toothpicks, slowly stabilizing, but nonetheless, fragile. The current bull market on Wall Street, and the recuperation of the commodities markets? Do we believe them? If we don't we are in trouble.

    I think there are serious doubts about the core numbers. Compare it to a couple where one has had a wild affair and the other partner finds out, and after a very big crisis, they try and make it work again. We are in the "lets make it work period", but serious doubts remain. Without trust, a couple is doomed, and without faith in the future, capitalism is doomed. How do we restore faith? How would a couple do it? With big gestures, flowers, jewelry, trips, lots of phone calls and messages. How does a world regain faith in an economy? Lots of good numbers.... GDP, inflation, unemployment, real estate prices, etc..


    Money without intelligence is like a car without a road.

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