The first Sunday of the NFL season kicked off yesterday at 1 p.m. ET, but ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown started three hours earlier. On the NFL Network, pre-game coverage started at 7 a.m.!
By the time the games began, many football fans (myself included) had watched at least a few minutes of these pre-game shows, wherein a panel of experts analyzes each matchup -- and then make predictions about them. It's compelling television, but it's almost always worthless. (Spoiler alert: The games aren't predictable. Which is, you know, why we watch them.)
This game of predicting-the-unpredictable is a much worse phenomenon in financial media. In this space, there's little to no accountability (at least ESPN analysts' past picks are tracked), cherry-picking of sources and facts is rampant, and the stakes -- our savings and investment accounts -- are much higher.
Until David Gardner's desire to "Moneyball the financial world" comes true, though, the status quo will remain.
Mind you, just as I want to see what Cris Carter thinks about my home team's chances at kickoff, I am an avid consumer of headlines predicting market crashes or market pops. They're rarely dull -- but can often be dangerous. Which is why investors must maintain some perspective when reading financial media's favorite story (the "here's what's going to happen to the market" story -- a reliable traffic-generator).
Let's sample a few headlines from 2014.
Fortune, March 21, 2014: "Why the bull market could end tomorrow"
Key quote: "One smart prognosticator thinks the five-year run will soon come to a close."
Issue: The "smart prognosticator" in question, Tom DeMark, "famously called the S&P 500's 2011 bottom within a point or so," according to the Fortune piece. Good for him. The problem is, he's had several big whiffs -- which aren't acknowledged at all in the story. To give two examples: In January 2011, he claimed that "U.S. stocks are within a week of 'a significant market top.'" (They weren't.) In November 2011, he claimed that the "market should top out around Dec. 21, ," stimulating "a sharp decline." (It didn't.)
CNBC, April 7, 2014: "'Scared' Dennis Gartman: Get out of stocks"
Key quote: "[Gartman] pared down his exposure to equities from an average of 100%, to close to zero."
Issue: What is Gartman's track record? Has he made these sorts of calls before? Why should we be scared, and why should we get out of stocks?
CNBC, April 21, 2014: "Dennis Gartman: I'm back in stocks"
Two weeks after making a substantial call to get out of equities, Dennis Gartman now says that he's reentered the market and has become "pleasantly long" of stocks.
On CNBC's "Fast Money" on April 7, Gartman said that he was "scared" out of all of his positions in stocks by a market reversal the previous Friday. "I'm not sure what happened, but something happened between 11 and 11:15, that everything turned on a dime," he said.
Bloomberg, July 14, 2014: "Individuals Pile Into Stocks as Pros Say Bull Is Spent"
Individual investors are plowing money back into the U.S. stock market just as professional strategists say gains for this year are over. About $100 billion has been added to equity mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in the past year, 10 times more than the previous 12 months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and the Investment Company Institute. The growing optimism contrasts with forecasters from UBS AG to HSBC Holdings Plc, who say the stock market will be stagnant.
Issue: This story suggests the dumb money is buying while the smart money is not. But its evidence is half-baked.
The Bloomberg and ICI fund/ETF inflow data is airtight -- retail investors have been buying. But the smart money here is represented by only two institutional firms -- and their strategists at that! First, strategists are not money managers, so this is a bit like comparing one person's actual eating habits against another's dietary ideas for the next week. Second, money managers don't even always listen to their own strategists! Even famous ones: as illustrated in another Bloomberg story on the difference between what Jeremy Grantham says and what GMO money managers do.
Bloomberg, Aug. 27, 2014: "Stocks Are Red Hot. Investors Are Cold Sober"
"The mood among investors is dour and businesslike. ... 'People are still worried,' says William Rutherford, who runs his own investment firm in Portland, Oregon. 'They don't trust the market, they don't trust the rally and they don't trust Wall Street.'"
Issue: As far as I can tell, the notion that investors are worried, or "cold sober," is validated by one investment manager in Portland.
The New York Times, Aug. 31: "Midterm Election Mind-Reading: The Market Tends to Win"
Here is [the Stock Trader's Almanac's] current calculations for the average annual gain of the Dow Jones industrial average in each year of a presidential term, going back to the beginning of the 20th century: 6.2% for Year 1, 4% for Year 2 (which this midterm year would be), 12.4% for Year 3 and 7.5% for Year 4.
Issue: This Times piece is as hedged as they come -- which is a good thing. (For instance, "The data can be endlessly fascinating. ... They may be best used as light entertainment. ... So let's be clear: These are merely patterns, not reliable statistics.")
Even so, it can't get away with simply disclaiming away all of the preceding evidence. If this is all fluff and fun and entertainment, why write the story?
The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 2014: "Some Stock Strategists Brace for September Swoon"
Key quote: "Regardless, the arrival of September is making some people nervous now. Even some who feel bullish for the long run are warning clients to beware of September."
Issue: "Some people" is the key phrase here -- because there are certainly "others" out there who did not get profiled for a Wall Street Journal article about a September swoon, presumably because they do not agree with that narrative.
CNBC.com, Sept. 3, 2014: "Market bears now scarcer than any time since 1987"
As gauged by the weekly Investors Intelligence report, bearishness among market newsletter writers has fallen to 13.3%, a level it has not seen since 1987 as the market continues to set new highs despite a seemingly endless call for a long-overdue correction.
Issue: The crux of the argument rests on this data point -- one I'd never seen prior to reading this article. It could be a perfectly legitimate data point. Or it could not. That's my point: Who the hell knows? Also, is it a contrarian indicator? Should we be nervous? Excessive optimism is dangerous, right?
The key question
The key question for investors is quite simple: How does any of this help you?
It certainly helps to understand the chatter among professional money managers, strategists, newsletter writers, and the like. And it can be quite entertaining -- which is why I read as much of these predictive stories as I can (I have an RSS feed set up for RealClearMarkets.com so I don't miss any.)
But as investors, these don't help us much (if at all). So let me leave you with what I consider to be five truths about where-will-the-market-go prediction stories:
Truth #1: Anyone can find an article on the Internet supporting their position -- probably even from the most reputable of news sources. Bullish? Bearish? Bubble predictor? There's a well-regarded market strategist out there who agrees with you, and he or she is quoted near and far. Confirmation bias never had a better friend than Google.
Truth #2: No one knows what's going to happen to the market tomorrow, next week, next month. (For an excellent primer on this point, see this classic column by Morgan Housel or this post by Josh Brown.)
Truth #3: As a consumer of news, these stories are interesting. As an investor, they're a distraction.
Truth #4: Related to #3, quoting Warren Buffett: "Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio's market value."
Truth #5: Quoting Peter Lynch: "Far more money has been lost by investors ... trying to anticipate corrections than has been lost in corrections themselves."
Remember those five points and the rest is cream cheese.