Two words can explain why free stock advice just doesn't work: No accountability.
My peers who write free articles on this site and others may not like me much for saying it, but it's true. There's just no accountability when you're dealing with free investment advice. And that's a big problem.
Let me tell you why.
What did you just say?
Cramer screams tickers at you on the television, economists spout off in The Wall Street Journal, talking heads on CNBC ... talk. But no one is ever around to keep tabs. It's as if folks in these worlds play from a different scorecard, one that gets washed away every single day. Unfortunately, keeping score is what really counts in investing.
Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to this substantial generalization-- our proprietary CAPS system is an attempt at keeping tabs on ourselves, our competitors, and many Wall Street firms. But generally speaking, lots and lots of individuals give lots and lots of free advice, with little if any way to account for it. So where is the value?
I'm culpable, too
I write a few dozen articles every year, with several recommendations embedded in each one. I'm probably the only person in the world who knows that I wrote an article in March 2007, pitching Countrywide Mortgage as a great value play. Jeez, I wish that one would just vanish -- poof. But it mustn't, and I'll explain why.
If I were a total nitwit, the only recommendations I'd make reappear from the great ether would be the great ones. For example, I pitched Take-Two Interactive
Some advice-givers don't know why this is a problem ... or just don't care.
Generally speaking, you and I both need to know just how good (or not good) I am at doing my job. We both need the feedback. Yet the world of free investment advice desperately lacks any such accountability.
A broken clock is right twice a day
Many advice-givers naturally tend to review and rehash their successes, rather than focusing on the collective performance of all of their recommendations. Unfortunately, that leaves investors like you with a totally inaccurate frame of reference -- no small problem.
But there's an even bigger pitfall here. Numerous studies across a variety of fields show that people who become great at things measure their performance. After all, if you don't recognize your successes and mistakes, how can you learn from them? Investors seeking to make smarter calls need that sort of information just as much as baseball players or golf junkies hoping to perfect their swings.
David Gardner, co-founder of the Motley Fool and co-advisor of the market-beating Stock Advisor service, sagely suggests that "Once you measure it, you treasure it." If you've ever tried to go on a diet without a scale nearby, you'll know that this is true. Accurate and regular measurement are essential elements of success in any difficult task.
We keep track
We measure it all at the Fool, from readership to returns to customer satisfaction -- and we do so in an intellectually honest manner. For example, on our Stock Advisor scorecard, you'll tremendous successes such as Activision
Unlike much of the free investment advice world, we have a mechanism to accurately keep track of every recommendation our premium services have ever made. More importantly, we deliver that information to our members, whether it's good or bad.
The funny thing about keeping such meticulous track of our performance is that it's seriously paying off. We're kicking the market's tail by an average 47 percentage points since we started in 2003, and getting better all the time.
Like David says, once you measure it, you'll treasure it.
The Foolish bottom line
Geoffrey Colvin of Fortune magazine recently explored what makes people great at certain tasks. In his words: "You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful."
The secret sauce that Colvin alludes to, and which most investment-advice-givers miss? Well-measured feedback.
When you're tracking your investment returns, make sure that you are comparing your performance to a relevant benchmark such as the S&P 500. Also, it's important to include all of your transaction costs in your total returns -- capital gains taxes and commissions can eat away at your returns, if you're trading frequently.
Whether dealing with your diet, your golf swing, or your returns in the stock market, history shows that once you begin to measure things, you can start to improve them. So get started.
If you want to see how an investment service can benefit from six years of careful measurement, click here for a free test spin of our market-beating Stock Advisor service, and see all our active recommendations, risk-free.
Fool Nick Kapur owns shares Disney, Dolby, and Activision, which along with Electronic Arts and Marvel are Stock Advisor recommendations. He gets on the scale pretty much every morning and does an analysis of his investment returns twice a year. Disney is an Inside Value pick. Take-Two is a Rule Breakers selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.