Attention, Investors: Ignore the Noise

Run for your lives! The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) is down more than 100 points after Republican lawmakers in Washington failed to pass an alternative to the fiscal cliff last night. As a headline from The Wall Street Journal put it: "Political Disarray Hits U.S. Stocks."

I'm just kidding, of course. The reality is that very little has changed between last night and today. Think about it: Even if our "representatives" in Washington do reach a compromise, in all practicality, that won't altogether avert a sort of fiscal cliff, as an agreement will necessarily encompass both tax rate increases and spending cuts.

The point I'm trying to make is that investors should look beyond the hysteria. If you want something to focus on today, try this: according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, personal-consumption expenditures rose 0.4% last month, and orders for long-lasting manufactured goods -- so-called "durable goods" -- increased by 0.7%, the sixth increase in seven months.

But, of course, the fact that durable-goods sales -- an extremely important leading economic indicator -- increased last month doesn't make for a very provocative headline.

So what about the Dow's triple-digit decline today? Shake it off. Ignore it. And allow me put this in perspective: On the last trading day of 2011, the Dow closed at 12,217; today, it's at 13,165. Unless my math is wrong, that's a 7.8% increase. And if you add in dividends -- the blue-chip index is yielding 2.61% -- that equates to a 10.4% return. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination!

And the same analysis holds true for many of today's biggest laggards. The financials provide a textbook example, as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) are down by 2%, 1.9%, and 1.1%, respectively. But for the year, they've made respective gains of 108%, 62%, and 49%. In other words, if anything, many stocks are just taking a much-needed breather today.

In his widely heralded book The Signal and the Noise, noted statistician Nate Silver distinguished between, well, the signal and the noise: "The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth." Investors would be wise to acknowledge this distinction today and ignore the largely meaningless noise emanating from Washington.

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