After you spend enough time consuming financial media week after week, you start seeing patterns in the noise. I understand why of course, as creating content to feed the beast can get quite exhausting. But hopefully, by pointing out these out, you as an individual investor can realize that there may or may not be any substance behind the marketing buzzwords and short-term forecasts. Entertaining? Yes. Useful and actionable? Much less likely.
A good analogy would be with the classic word game Mad Libs, where “one player prompts others for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story, before reading the – often comical or nonsensical – story aloud.”
Here’s how the usual “Profile of successful mutual fund manager” article usually goes. I am paraphrasing myself in 2006.
[Name of recently successful mutual fund manager] may not look the part, but at the helm of [formidable sounding firm], his [mutual fund name] has outperformed its benchmark by [big number]% annually over the past 5 years. The key is to [something skill-based like “on-the-ground” human research or complex computer algorithms] and also [something classic like “long-term perspective” or “focus on the fundamentals”]. As a result, the manager says that people should [something vague and simple for the Average Joe investor].
There are also the marketing materials coming directly from the firms themselves. Here’s an actual quote taken from a 2008 fund brochure. I’ve bolded the buzzwords for your convenience:
The OIM Core Plus Fixed Income strategy is rooted in the idea that individual security selection produces the best opportunity for risk-adjusted excess returns over time. Through an extensive, bottom-up research process, our portfolio management team focuses on optimal bond selection of investment grade corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, US Government Treasuries and taxable municipal bonds. The team employs a tightly controlled duration discipline and closely manages all portfolio risk factors. The portfolio management team’s objective is to produce predictable, consistent excess returns net of fees over the Barclay’s Capital Aggregate Bond Index.
The Oppenheimer Core Plus fund was supposed to be very conservative and was marketed to those with children within 5 years of college. What happened next? It proceeded to lose 38% of its value in 2008, while the fund’s benchmark actually rose 5.24%.
Barry Ritholz probably digests more financial media than 99.9% of folks out there, and in a recent WaPo article he pretty much nails the average CNBC guest who gets the question “Where’s the Dow going to be in a year?”:
“Our view is that the economy in the U.S. continues to _______, and we foresee _______ problems overseas ______. China is _______, and that has ramifications for the Pacific Rim’s ______. Greece is ______ in Europe. The commodity complex is causing _____ for emerging markets. But many sectors of the U.S. economy remain _______, and some sectors overseas are still _______. The valuation issue continues to be _____, and that means _____ for investors. That has ramifications for corporate profits that will be ______. We think the economy is going to do ______, and you know that means inflation will be _____, which will force interest rates to ______. Under these conditions, the sectors most likely to benefit from this are ______, ______ and ______. The companies best positioned to take advantage of this are ____, ____ and ____. Based on all that, we especially recommend an overweight allocation to ____, ____ and ____. Thus, we believe the Dow will be at ______ next year.”
There are good mutual fund managers, good financial reporters, and good hedge fund managers out there trying to do the right thing. But the problem is that when you see such meaningless words and phrases, you just can’t tell if they are good or bad. Next time you watch CNBC, Fox Business, or Bloomberg TV, see if you can match up the blanks and buzzwords. Thanks to reader CJ for the Ritholz article tip.