You've got to love Jim Cramer. The colorful founder of TheStreet.com (Nasdaq: TSCM ) , who has become one of the more memorable CNBC personalities (perhaps the most memorable), pulls off a daily market-munching show that few stock gurus would dare to attempt. He rants about business and investing during Mad Money, culminating in the always-entertaining, Wall Street-on-steroids, lightning round segment. Armed with sound effects and one-line zingers, Cramer takes on a rat-a-tat army of callers who heave stocks and ticker symbols his way to hear his knee-jerk reaction.
As with most market mavens, there comes a time when educators become entertainers. It's during these speed rounds that Cramer pawns substance to load up on style points. Cramer is a brilliant man. His ability to have something to say on just about every name that is fired his way is commendable. It's a hoot to watch sometimes. My problem, though, is that there are some folks who take that entertaining segment and consume it as something serious. They take that little seven-word nugget and blast it on speculative stock discussion boards as if it's due diligence (at best) or gospel (at worst).
I worry about these people. I do. They're the ones who take fortune cookies seriously. They're the type that can fathom a haiku as a business plan. Investing isn't very complicated, but it's not that easy.
Leading by example
Fancy him or loathe him, Cramer is a genius. As a trader, Cramer's opinion on certain companies is bound to fluctuate, often within a day or two. Someone who rushes to their broker with a new mandate based on a bull or bear sound effect button being triggered frightens me. Cramer has every right to speak his mind -- and change it -- but when some poor sap trades in and out of a particular company without seriously considering the implications, it's troublesome.
Yes, there are implications. From short-term capital gains to wash sale rules to the trading costs involved in bid-ask spreads and broker commissions, buying in and out of the same company can be hazardous to your investing health.
Mike from California, one of the subscribers to our Rule Breakers newsletter service, was kind enough to dig into Cramer's back-and-forth tugs on a company by the name of Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG ) , a newsletter recommendation.
He went through the Mad Money archives over the last six months to dig up Cramer's changing stance on the intriguing and fast-growing maker of surgically savvy robotic arms that keep popping up in operating rooms everywhere. In that time alone, Cramer went through seven different trading recommendations on the company. Let's dig in.
On July 26, 2005, Cramer interviewed Aleks Cukic, Intuitive Surgical's vice president of business development and strategic planning, on the show. The company had just announced blowout earnings, and Cramer was convinced. "Intuitive Surgical is a winner," Cramer said. The stock went on to open at $63.16 the next day.
Two days after issuing the buy, Cramer had senior MarketWatch columnist Herb Greenberg on the show. Greenberg was cautious, picking out risks in owning Intuitive Surgical, and Cramer agreed. According to the recap, "Cramer said it would be silly for investors who have big gains to not ring the register after such a big move in the stock." The next day the stock opened at $69.21.
A 9.6% gain in two days is nothing to scoff at. The problem is that if that trade was done in a taxable account, triggering short-term capital gains would have cut into more than a third of those returns.
Cramer regained his bullish tone on Sept. 6. "I think the great quarters are going to continue," he told the caller. The stock opened the next day at $69.38. Yes, you have to give Cramer props in that the company didn't do much while he was away, though buying in a few pennies higher than after his July warning also came with the extra costs of two broker trades to step out and step back in.
The September call was a juicy one. Two months later, he issued a colorful kiss-off. "You should ring the register," he said on Nov. 9. "Didn't you ever take that astronomy course that tells you how high you are?" The stock opened at $95.70 the next day, so one would think that a 38% gain in two months wouldn't leave too many investors smarting.
However, just five days later, with the stock in triple digits, he grabbed the company by its bullish horns. He once again had Cukic on the show, and it's amazing what three trading days can do for one's disposition.
"You don't get in the way of these monsters when they're rolling," he said on Nov. 14. "This stock goes higher because they're nowhere near saturation. I think it's still two thumbs up for ISRG."
The stock opened at $105.50, angering the astronomy students who had taken his advice a few days earlier and bailed in the double digits.
On Dec. 13, pointing out that the stock had tripled since the beginning of the year, Cramer remained bullish. "You're in the House of Pleasure," he said. "Ride that stock another 10 points." The stock opened at $118.89 after the show.
Did he wait for those 10 points? No way. "I now want to ring the register," he said on Jan. 5, 2006, lumping the company together with Syneron Medical (Nasdaq: ELOS ) on his sell call. "I think ISRG has overstayed its welcome on the 52-week-high list." The stock opened the next day at $117.73. It wasn't necessarily a fair comparison, because Syneron had just warned that it would miss its 2005 revenue target.
But of course, there's always my way
Intuitive Surgical is a pretty amazing company. More installations. The da Vinci robotic arms in place are being used more often, providing the company with even more recurring revenue. Wall Street's missed the boat. Through the first three quarters of 2005, the company beat estimates by an average of 71%. Yes, 71%.
Before those three quarters of gargantuan market-thumping action, the stock was singled out to Rule Breakers newsletter subscribers. In March 2005, it was recommended at $44.17. There was no waffling in and out. There were no astronomy lessons or stampeding bull graphics. It was just a thoroughly researched buy report. In fact, David Gardner was so impressed with the stock that he issued a re-recommendation six months later, even though the stock was up to $69.68 then.
CNBC addicts who followed Cramer's advice on Intuitive Surgical every step of the way over the last six months may feel richly rewarded. Despite the trading costs, missed gaps, taxable short-term gains and tax-filing hassles, they would have come out ahead. The three round-trip trades would have resulted in a 59% overall gain, reduced to a still respectable sub-40% after the taxman's cut. That's without accounting for the various charges involved due to weaving in and out of the shares. One can't dismiss those nibbles. It could be substantial, especially for smaller investors. Still, it seems like a pretty enriching string of trades on the surface.
However, that's no match for buying in at the mid-$40s 10 months ago -- or close to $70 just four months ago -- and riding it up to the triple digits the easy way.
Buy and hold may be a boring mantra, but it works even for volatile growth stocks. Some of David's biggest gains when he was running the real-money Rule Breaker portfolio through the 1990s came from holding on to stocks like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) , and Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN ) through their daily gyrations.
Intuitive Surgical has served subscribers well -- up a whopping 178% since the March recommendation -- but it's not even the biggest winner in the service. Two months earlier, Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX ) was singled out at $10.48 and has gone on to nearly triple.
It's part of the reason why the 32 stocks that have made the cut in the ultimate growth newsletter service have performed so well. The average pick is up 24%, while the market has advanced by an average of just 7% over that time.
So, by all means, keep watching Cramer. I know I will. For new stock ideas, I find some of his introductions to be invaluable, as long as I roll up my sleeves and follow it up with due diligence. But do consider a free, 30-day trial subscription to Motley Fool Rule Breakers when the time comes to take your growth stock investing a bit more seriously than inspirational one-liners.
Picks that stick. Stocks that rock. Equities sans inequities. Money without the madness.
Amazon.com and eBay areMotley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of Cramer and even read his autobiography a few years ago. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.