Nobody Wants Cramer to Lose

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

The cover story in this weekend's Barron's digs deep into TheStreet.com's (Nasdaq: TSCM  ) Jim Cramer. It pulls no punches in taking his picks on CNBC's Mad Money to task. Going over the market calls that Cramer has made on the show since its 2005 debut, Barron's concludes that the colorful market maven's stock recommendations have been lackluster underperformers relative to the market. (In Motley Fool CAPS, we track the recommendations that Cramer and other professional pickers make, alongside the picks of everyday Foolish investors. See his CAPS track record for yourself.)

So what should you do? Turning off the set and going for an index fund is one suggestion Barron's makes. Another approach is to short Cramer's picks after they're announced. With Cramer's average pick popping 2% higher before trading sideways or lower relative to the market over the next 30 trading days, the article suggests that it pays to bet against him.

So where's the conspiracy theory? Well, Barron's is a subsidiary of Dow Jones (NYSE: DJ  ) , the company that News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) is about to acquire. And you probably know that News Corp. is just weeks away from launching the Fox Business Network, a cable channel that has CNBC in its crosshairs. It's awfully convenient, isn't it? Taking a shot at your rival's biggest -- and perhaps only -- rock star?

I'm not much of a grassy-knoll kind of guy, though.

This is a story that has been told many different ways -- through many different voices -- in the past. I've nibbled away at Cramer in the past, in pointing out how his buy-sell mood swings on stocks such as Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG  ) have been less profitable than if he had simply bought and held.

Oh, I've heard it from Mad Money fans after some of my articles taking Cramer to task. I'm a punk, they say. I'm jealous. I'm a shill for a competing website.

What the boo-yah minions seem to miss is that the last thing that I would want is for Cramer to bow out. Fox Business Network, like any other financial media outlet, would hate to lose Cramer's energy. It's pretty easy to figure that much out.

Everybody loves/loathes Cramer
Cramer isn't just CNBC's rock star. He is financial journalism's rock star. Do you think that quality CNBC commentators such as Mark Haines, Ron Insana, or Maria Bartiromo will ever ring up as many Colbert Report appearances as Cramer? Of course not.

For better or worse, Cramer has become a Wall Street ambassador who's mastered the mercurial to make stocks cool to the masses. How many remote-control-jockeying couch potatoes -- with zero interest in investing -- have been compelled to pause on CNBC as Cramer works his way up to a frenzied rage during the show's signature lightning round, or when he throws audiences a curve by showing up in costume for a themed segment?

The theatrics can be engrossing. The levity can be disarming. The passion can be contagious.

He's a retail-investor shoehorn. Why would any rival want to take him down, if popping the balloon would also eat into the size of the market of engaged financial-media watchers?

Taking unwarranted shots at Cramer isn't beneficial for the industry. Even if you write Cramer off as the Spinal Tap -- or perhaps the Air Supply -- of financial theater, you're missing the point of his mad ambassadorial skills. Barron's is just asking him to be more transparent and accountable -- something I have been arguing for nearly two years. Cramer, after all, is in a position of power. He's reaching a broad range of individual investors, novice traders, and seasoned speculators. Yet he spends too much time entertaining rather than enlightening.

From lightning rounds to enlightening sounds
The lightning-round segment of Cramer's show is an amazing testament to one man's retention of corporate fundamentals. However, the pressure of relegating a definitive "buy" or "sell" call to what is ultimately a knee-jerk reaction is as tricky as it is imperfect. One has to wonder whether he even knows on which side he'll fall with any particular stock. He's kind of like a pachinko ball, which chooses new sides with every peg it hits and so almost never duplicates the same path on its way down.

I don't invest that way. You probably don't, either. You're typically in an analog "sliding scale" mode as you dig into your due diligence on a particular company. The binary "on-off" switch may be the eventual "yes-no" resting place, but it's not something to be taken lightly after an introductory sound bite. You need more than that. You're just not getting it during the frenetic, call-in speed round. Forcing himself to make snap judgments, pachinko-like, makes for good television and snappier sound effects, but not necessarily more profitable investing.

That's the problem with Pachinko James. He floors it without taking the time to study the skid marks he leaves behind. That opens the door for sites such as YourMoneyWatch.com to track the carnage -- and help Barron's in picking out the performance holes.

Writhing The Knot
Let's take The Knot (Nasdaq: KNOT  ) , for example. Like Intuitive Surgical, The Knot is another Rule Breakers newsletter recommendation that could have worked out far better as a buy and hold than as a Cramer trade.

He highlighted the company back in October as a great buyout candidate for Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) . Two months later, with the stock a little higher, he backed his original recommendation.

"When I can get 50% growth for 60 times earnings, I am going to raise the thumb and say buy the stock," he said at the time.

He reversed course on the stock two months later, a week after it cratered when the wedding-resources specialist missed Wall Street's expectation. It wasn't necessarily a bad call. Depending on whether you hopped on with Cramer's October call or his December follow-up, it would seem as if you either squeezed out a tiny profit or you took a small loss.

In reality, though, even that small profit is a mirage.

Date

Call

Price

Next Day's Open

10/19/06

BUY

$23.93

$24.61

12/13/06

BUY

$26.97

$27.10

2/26/07

SELL

$24.63

$24.00

8/6/07

SELL

$17.46

$17.19

Current Price

 

$21.49

 

Investors who liked what they heard on the October show couldn't get in until the stock opened at $24.61 the next morning. Cashing out after his springtime diss meant bowing out at $24.00 the next day.

That's the problem with the Cramer pop. However, the even bigger lost opportunity here came during his show earlier this month, when he once again waxed bearish on the company.

"'I've got some Internet companies that are en fuego, and Knot is not one of them," he said on Aug. 6.

As fate would have it, The Knot went on to obliterate quarterly profit targets. It's actually one of the few Internet companies to be trading considerably higher since then in this very dicey market.

This doesn't mean traders couldn't make a living weaving in and out of companies like The Knot and Intuitive Surgical. Lord knows that they've been volatile enough, and Cramer earned a ton of dough as a prolific fund manager in the 1990s. It's just something that's too tough to pin down. Thankfully, each stock has trounced the market since being recommended to Rule Breakers newsletter subscribers. The buy-and-hold approach on these stocks has proved to be the better approach, without the long list of taxable implications, brokerage commissions, and bid-ask spreads to eat away at the gains.

Everybody loves Cramer
So let's get back to that ax that people think the critics want to grind against Cramer. Nobody wants him to go away. A financial world without Cramer would be an emptier one.

The calls for clearer accountability and more substance than style are supposed to be constructive, not destructive. Even if it sounds like there's more boo than yah, the financial media are still grateful that Pachinko James came along.

The Knot and Intuitive Surgical are Rule Breakers recommendations. Yahoo! is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. If you want more than sound bites, try either newsletter and dig as deep as you want into all of the past and current issues -- for free -- for the next 30 days with a trial subscription.

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. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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