Investing in a Crooked Market

These days, there seems to be a crescendo. It's a shout emanating from Main Street, directed at Wall Street.

It's hard to pin it down, but it sounds a lot like, "That place is entirely crooked!" or "The whole game is rigged!"

It's hit a new peak recently with the controversial claims from Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) CEO Patrick Byrne that not only is there a widespread financial conspiracy led by a master criminal "Sith Lord," but that there are multiple levels of scheming, supported by crooked journalists from the most respected journals in the country, all working in cahoots with hedge funds.

This may be the latest and most famous charge of criminal manipulation, but it's certainly not the only one. In fact, we hear cries like this all the time. They come most often from the adherents of smaller, penny stocks like Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI  ) , or GlobeTel, but to judge by the increasing chatter, the belief in widespread manipulation has become a matter of faith for some investors in larger, better-known companies like NovaStar Financial (NYSE: NFI  ) , Cree (Nasdaq: CREE  ) , Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) , and TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) .

Let me say from the start that I have no doubt that Wall Street is dirty, but that I think the charges leveled these days are vastly overblown. But let's leave that aside.

Today, I'm going to assume that every single manipulation story I've heard about every one of these stocks is 100% true. Sith Lords are doing their deals, journalists are lining their pockets, and hedge funds are shipping their ill-gotten gains to offshore money launderers. The guys at the Securities and Exchange Commission are hiding under their desks or counting their payoffs while looking the other way.

Here's my question: If you believe this, why would you invest at all? Why would you invest in the targeted companies?

Let's get back to basics: Investing is simply a matter of finding the best odds, weighing potential risks vs. potential rewards. You say to yourself, "Well, self, Altria (NYSE: MO  ) has some tasty cash flow and a very nice dividend, and eventually others will want to pay more for the stock." There's your potential for reward.

But you also say to yourself, "Well, self, there's also the overhang from all that anti-tobacco litigation in the U.S. And what if we start exporting our lawyers to Indonesia?" That's your risk. And you weigh the two to come up with what you think is a fair price to pay.

If you truly believe that your stock is being manipulated, then you need to put that into the risk side of the equation. But if you believe the stock can be manipulated at any time, simply by a crooked hedge fund putting in a call to its favorite media stooge, then you have to assume the risk is immense. The odds will always be staked against you. And your conclusion should be "I won't invest here; it's the equity equivalent of betting on the Washington Generals." (Actually, these days we should say the New York Nationals.)

For some, this is a moral issue. That's fine. If you think that rooting out the evil axis of Sith Lords, naked shorts, regular shorts, hedge funds, and crooked journalists is an important task, I'm not going to suggest that you give up the fight. We all have our causes.

But I will suggest that you cheer your team from the sidelines with your money safe in your pocket. You don't need to pay to pick your side.

For related Foolishness:

At the time of publication,Seth Jaysonhad no positions in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profilehere. Overstock is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Netflix and TiVo areMotley Fool Stock Advisorpicks. Fool rules arehere.


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