Tag Archives: Fed Reserve

The Harm in Financial Journalism

In most areas of our lives, the more information you get, and the more up-to-the-minute it is, the better we can do business and make astute decisions.  It is interesting that investing is one area where the opposite is true.

We’re not talking here about the second-by-second blips on a Bloomberg terminal that traders and computer algorithms use to make quick-twitch buys and sells.  We’re talking about the normal news reports, cable TV investment reports and investing articles that you’re bombarded with on a daily basis.  In general, the news and data supplied by consumer journalists is almost always harmful to your financial health.

How?  Consider profiles of mutual funds and mutual fund managers.  The quarterly profiles in Barron’s and the articles in Money, Kiplinger’s and the Wall Street Journal tend to focus a bright spotlight of attention on the hot funds—that is, funds that outperformed their peers (and the market) in the previous quarter.  Three months worth of track record is statistical nonsense, but the hot fund manager is interviewed with breathless deference normally given to a certified genius.  It is interesting that seldom if ever is the next quarter’s genius the same as the last one.  Anyone who invests with the fund of the hour is in grave danger of suffering a regression to the mean—which means losses when compared with the indices.

Even one-year and five-year rankings have no predictive value, particularly when the focus is on outliers who were well ahead of their peers.  Meanwhile, when we aren’t reading about hot managers, we’re hearing about what the stock market did (or is doing) today.  Today’s price movements are, to a statistician, meaningless white noise, indicative of nothing remotely significant about the future.  The markets go up today, down tomorrow, up for a week, down for a week, and during each of these time periods, analysts try to tell us the causes of these random bounces.  They would be more productively employed trying to explain the “causes” behind each of the waves in the ocean, yet we can’t help listening to their plausible explanations as to why this earnings report, that jobs report, or some other speculation on what the Federal Reserve Board will or will not do has affected our investment outlook.

And, of course, at market tops, when new money is chasing returns at the most dangerous possible time, the news reports are telling us how the markets have been going up, up, up.  When markets are depressed, and it is the best possible time to put new money to work, the news reports are telling us all the bad news about months of market losses.  Swimming against that tide is nearly impossible, even for professionals.

There may be meaningful information among this chatter, but it’s unlikely that most of us will see it amid the noisy background.  Back in the late 1990s, one analyst who couldn’t believe how much people were paying for tech stocks finally broke through the background noise by pointing out that Amazon’s share price had reached approximately the same level as the entire yearly economic output of the nation of Iceland, plus a few 747 cargo jets to carry it all back to the U.S.  Of course, few listened, and the bursting tech bubble cost a lot of investors a fortune.

Today, we’re being told that the current market rally is long in the tooth, that the Fed is going to raise rates soon, that market valuations are kind of high, and of course that certain fund managers did really well last quarter and yesterday’s market was up or down.  The problem is that we were hearing exactly the same things last year and the year before (remember?), and still the market churned ahead, cranking out new record highs.

Unlike just about any other activity you might pursue, the best, most astute way to invest is to turn off the noise and let the markets carry you where they must.  The short-term drops tend to become buying opportunities in the long run, and over time, the U.S. and global economies reflect the underlying growth in value generated by millions of workers who go to work each day and build that value.  Investor sentiment will swing around with the unhelpful prodding of journalists and pundits, but people who stay the course have always seen new market highs eventually, while people who react to every positive or negative report tend to fare much less well.  When it comes to the markets, wisdom trumps up-to-the-minute knowledge every time.

Maybe somebody should tell that to the journalists.

About the Author: Bob Veres has been a commentator, author and consultant in the financial services industry for more than 20 years.  Over his 20-year career in the financial services world, Mr. Veres has worked as editor of Financial Planning magazine; as a contributing editor to the Journal of Financial Planning; as a columnist and editor-at-large of Dow Jones Investment Advisor magazine; and as editor of Morningstar’s advisor web site: MorningstarAdvisor.com.

Mr. Veres has been named one of the most influential people in the financial planning profession by Investment Advisor magazine and Financial Planning magazine, was granted the NAPFA Special Achievement Award by the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and most recently the Heart of Financial Planning Distinguished Service Award from the Denver-based Financial Planning Association. 


Is Good News Really Bad News



You may have read last week that the U.S. stock market took a tumble based on what would seem like really good news: that the U.S. unemployment rate is falling faster than anybody expected. If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone.

First, let’s focus on the good news and what it may mean. At the beginning of 2015, there were 3 million more Americans at work than the year before. The unemployment rate had fallen to 5.5%—a level that economists at the International Monetary Fund had projected that the U.S. wouldn’t achieve until 2018 at the earliest.

Then came the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report for February, which showed a seasonally-adjusted increase of 295,000 jobs (nonfarm payroll employment), well ahead of projections. As you can see from the chart, America has not only pulled out of the long unemployment slump triggered by the Great Recession; it is now creating jobs faster than at any time since 2000, roughly equal to the go-go economy of the late 1990s. The government report noted that there are 1.7 million fewer unemployed persons today than there were at this time last year. More importantly, perhaps, there are 1.1 million fewer people in the “long-term unemployed” category, which is now down to 2.7 million overall.

CA - 2015-3-7 Jobs ChartHow can this be considered bad news for U.S. stocks? There are three possible explanations. First, the labor markets may be creeping toward that place where businesses have to compete for talent and pay their workers higher wages. When payrolls go up, it eats into corporate profits. There is little direct evidence this is happening yet—overall, wages are up just 2% in the past year, roughly even with inflation. But there are reports that small business employers have more unfilled job openings than at any time since April 2006. Meanwhile, the average workweek is inching up, which suggests that companies need people at their desks longer than they did before.

If the unemployment rate hits 5.4%—which could happen this Spring—then our economy will have reached what Federal Reserve economists consider to be “full employment.” This, of course, does not mean what those words actually say; it is a coded way of saying that the balance of negotiating power will have started to shift from employers to workers.

Reason number two is bond rates. While stocks were tumbling last week, bond yields were moving in the opposite direction in what was described as the biggest one-day selloff since November 2013. The yields on 10-year Treasuries rose from 2.11% to 2.239% in a single day. As bonds become more competitive with stocks, demand for stocks goes down—and so do stock prices. Interestingly, the stocks with the highest dividends tended to be the biggest losers in the selloff, suggesting that some investors who were temporarily relying on stocks for income are shifting back to bonds.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the market’s angst is concern about the next move by Federal Reserve Board. Fed chairperson Janet Yellen has made it clear that the health of the U.S. labor market will factor into her decision on when to finally allow short-term interest rates to rise. The good unemployment news could accelerate that schedule; at the worst, it probably confirms the current unofficial timetable of graduated rise beginning in June. For the impact that would have, go back to reason number two.

How credible are these three concerns? Should we be worried? It’s helpful to remember that higher employment means more money in the pockets of consumers, which can trigger a virtuous circle of more spending, more corporate revenues, a healthier economy. We’ve learned from past experience that the stock market is easily spooked by shadows and headlines, by good news as well as bad news. Bond rates are still pretty low compared with historical numbers, and the possible threat of higher payrolls is not exactly the same as seeing them show up in the actual workforce. (Remember those 2.7 million long-term unemployed workers still searching for any kind of a paycheck.)

Short-term traders, who measure their investment horizon on the second hand of their watch, can panic if they want to. Those of us who measure our investment horizon with a calendar should be celebrating another milestone in the U.S. economy’s long and fitful recovery.

About the Author: Bob Veres has been a commentator, author and consultant in the financial services industry for more than 20 years. Over his 20-year career in the financial services world, Mr. Veres has worked as editor of Financial Planning magazine; as a contributing editor to the Journal of Financial Planning; as a columnist and editor-at-large of Dow Jones Investment Advisor magazine; and as editor of Morningstar’s advisor web site: MorningstarAdvisor.com.