Every few months, the Wall Street Journal invites four ace money managers to pick a stock that they believe will beat the market as a whole over the next six months. The four experts’ stocks are compared against a four-stock control portfolio selected by tossing darts at the stock-price tables. And guess what? Quarter after quarter, year after year, the “dart portfolio” consistently equals or beats the pros.
Even experts are allowed to be wrong once in a while, but more troubling is the fact that money managers keep signing up for this public humiliation. Their arrogance is as obvious (in those nifty WSJ engraved portraits) as oatmeal on their faces: Oh, c’mon—I can beat the darts.
The dartboard feature neatly exposes Wall Street’s prime conceit, that the analysts and money managers have some sort of edge on the rest of us. And they do, in the sense that they amass heaps and heaps of data and are wired into the market’s hair-trigger buy and sell signals—but does it help? The darts would seem to indicate not. As does the fact that over any given 10-year period, a straight index fund—one that merely replicates a broad market average like the S&P 500—will whip the pants off most expertly managed mutual funds (to say nothing of stocks chosen by poor individual shlubs, experts or not).
Of course, nobody sells investment books by announcing that the average usually wins, and Derrick Niederman deftly avoids this truth in This Is Not Your Father’s Stockpicking Book. To admit it would be boring. Much better, he argues, to leave the number-crunching to the pros and concentrate on what shlubs know best: things like television and ads. All the information one needs to kick butt in the stock market—as in serious, quit-the-day-job butt—can be found in pop culture and everyday life.
Niederman analyzes five undervalued market indicators, starting with weather and then moving on to TV, presidential politics, fads, and advertising. Not only are these five worth more than a hard drive full of earnings forecasts and technical theories, according to Niederman, they’re accessible to “anyone with a pulse.” This year’s market rally fits into a long pattern (noted by Niederman, among others): The markets always rise in the year before a presidential election.
The book is full of examples of red-hot stocks whose potential should have been obvious, provided one knew what to look for. When Jerry Seinfeld opened his refrigerator to display rows of Snapples, for instance, he delivered a clear “buy” signal. When Fox scored with one youth hit after another, from The Simpsons to Beverly Hills 90210 to Home Alone (the third-biggest box office gross, after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars), alert couch-potato investors should have gulped down a piece of Fox’s parent company, News Corp., which zoomed from $6 a share to more than $60 in three years.
Missed it, didn’t you? Me too. I also missed the tenfold rise in Timberland’s stock in the early ’90s, despite having watched both Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. I bought my first crude Macintosh back in 1984, wasting money that would’ve been better spent on Apple stock and a plain old Selectric. And had my parents taken heed of my Atari lust in the mid-’70s, they could have ridden Atari’s parent, Warner, to a high-scoring gain. Let’s not even talk about the Home Shopping Network.
The most fertile source of investment knowledge is also the area Niederman decodes most skillfully: advertising. The key concept any armchair Boesky should remember is positioning—how does an ad position the company in its industry? The Marlboro Man was more than a hunky smoker; he and his advertising predecessors, a series of virile, tattooed guys, positioned Marlboro as the masculine cigarette. This was the ’50s, remember, and those ads made Philip Morris a blockbuster stock.
Niederman also uses the example of Federal Express, which first invaded the national consciousness, you’ll remember, with its memorable slogan: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” FedEx staked out the overnight delivery position, tapping into a deep well of resentment against the post office, and its stock rocketed from $3 a share in 1978 to $48 in 1983.
It is examples like this that make Niederman’s book deeply depressing. Stock investing is like a form of legalized gambling, a bit more respectable than going to the track. But ignoring Timberland at $8 or Fox at $6 is not much different from missing the 10-to-1 shot in the fifth race at Pimlico. In the markets, as in gambling, in order for there to be winners there must also be losers. Bettors know this, deep down; investors have a gravity-defying faith that all stocks will, eventually, rise.
They usually do rise. At least they have so far, particularly over the last 16 years. This is fortunate, because upward of 50 million Americans have money invested in the stock markets, either directly or through mutual funds, pools of money invested in a group of stocks. The term “investors” conjures an image of a few gray-faced wretches glowering at the stock charts; in fact, more and more Americans are betting their futures on the markets’ caprices. Niederman treats investing like a game—one you can’t hardly lose, he implies—but for many, the stakes are far higher. Some people are always going to lose to the darts.
As Niederman analyzes pop culture’s influence on the markets, his book stands as an example of how investing has become a branch of pop culture unto itself. Stocks, especially the sort of stocks Niederman follows, have much in common with celebrities. They follow the same basic cycle of obscurity, discovery, ubiquity, and oblivion. When a band makes the cover of Rolling Stone and a hot new company makes, say, the cover of Business Week, it means the same thing: The best days are past.
It’s no coincidence that the buzz stocks of recent years also represent hip products: stocks like Starbucks, Nike, and America Online. If it’s hip to ride a Harley and go snowboarding, it’s cooler still to own Harley-Davidson Inc. and Ride Snowboard stock; Ride’s up nearly fivefold for the past 12 months.
Like the music world or the movie world, the money world bustles with fan magazines, celebrity action figures like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, cable channels like CNBC, and online forums. Online services make financial information instantly accessible. Investors swap sage tips and bogus rumors in dozens of investment chat forums. One of the most popular America Online sites is the Motley Fool, which takes a populist, plain-talkin’ approach to investing. The result is a kind of democratization of finance; the insider-trading ’80s are far gone, and everyone’s looking for the next America Online, the next Microsoft, the next Ride. Nobody’s interested in keeping secrets. The more converts a stock attracts, the thinking goes, the higher its price will run.
Conversely, once a stock loses its buzz, watch out. People who bought Telefonos de Mexico (Mexico’s Ma Bell) during 1993’s NAFTA frenzy were well rewarded. The editorial pages and the business mags couldn’t shut up about Mexico’s supposedly robust economy. But once the roar died down, Telmex tumbled far and fast. Anyone who really thought NAFTA would turn Mexico into Germany overnight got royally boned. Lesson: Ride the hype as far as you dare, just don’t believe it.
Niederman himself is a writer for Worth, the glossiest of the new personal finance mags. His prose is clear and free of Wall Street arcana, despite his doctorate in mathematics. As a writer, he knocks the experts down a tick, and takes the voodoo out of investing. He fares less well as an investor. He ran Worth‘s Online Portfolio (also found on America Online) in 1994, with so-so results—but hey, it was a down year.
It’s worth noting that Worth is the house organ of Fidelity Investments, the largest mutual fund company. Niederman is, in other words, a species of market tout. His employer, Fidelity, has a clear interest in making investment accessible. Fidelity’s future, and the markets’, depends on people hauling cash out of banks and mattresses and hurling it into mutual funds and stocks. Parts of This Is Not Your Father’s Stockpicking Book, then, are calculated to whip readers into a frenzy of greed, determined not to miss out on the next Timberland, the next FedEx, the next whatever. This reader almost had to be restrained from pouring his life savings into Ride Snowboard. What changed my mind was Niederman’s analysis of the fad cycle, which led me to conclude that Ride’s peak—signaled by total snowboard media saturation—is not far off. I went for AT&T instead, now that everyone and their baby-sitter seems to be going cellular.
Skilled tout that he is, Niederman infects the reader with reckless optimism. Like most new investors, I entered the markets during the giddy upswings of the ’80s and early ’90s, and have no memory of the grinding torture of the Carter era, when the Dow Jones Industrials gained two points over four years. Niederman’s book illustrates, perhaps inadvertently, the sphincter-tightening downside to investing. The most interesting tale in the otherwise dull opening section about weather has to do with Toro, maker of snow blowers. After the blizzards of 1978 and ’79 smothered much of the nation, snow blower sales took off and so did Toro’s stock. Now, any skier knows that snow is a variable and elusive phenomenon that tends to disappear just when it is needed most—such as when a major industrial company is counting on a third straight year of record snowfall. Two warm winters later, Toro had slid from $30 to $5 a share.
Every dozen pages, some stock or other takes a screaming nosedive. Lorimar, the producer of Dallas, slides from $32 to $8 after the show is syndicated; if you think about it, who really wants to see reruns of a serial? Canandaigua, the company that invented the (shudder) wine cooler and once a Wall Street darling, plunges from $38 to $9.
And remember those blue-bottled Clearly Canadian sodas from a few years ago? Yes, they were vile. But the stock was a favorite…for a while. Then came the cool, wet summer of 1992, and people weren’t drinking sodas. Meanwhile, Clearly Canadian had flooded the market with its wretched, expensive beverages, which no one bought. From an early-season peak of $25, the stock fell 70 percent for the year.
Clearly Canadian’s main problem, according to Niederman, was a “vital accounting detail” that left it vulnerable to a slowdown in demand. How were regular investors supposed to know this? The question remains unanswered. As of this year, Clearly Canadian was trading at around $2 a share. But if John Travolta can come back….