Featured Stories

Dont let the media dictate decisions

Heeding the advice of financial journalists can be dangerous to your pocketbook. Does that mean you should immediately stop reading this column?

No. But it does mean you should take investment suggestions from the media (even this column) with more than a grain of salt. It's fashionable to blame the media for everything from declining public morals to the lack of patriotism. So why not the current bear market as well?

Money magazine this month assigns blame to a long list of culprits. Corporate executives, of course, are at the top with 17 percent of the blame. Stock options get 16 percent, followed by Wall Street and individual investors at 14 percent each. The media receive an exceedingly mild 7 percent share of the blame, exceeding only Osama bin Laden, who gets a mere 2 percent.

The magazine chastises individual investors. 'Look in the mirror,' it says. 'You bought stocks you didn't understand, kidded yourself that you could outsmart the market and got reckless with allocations. You ignored all that good advice about staying diversified and keeping some money in bonds.'

I studied a pile of popular investing magazines published a couple of years ago when the broad market averages were just beginning their long agonizing descent. After doing so, my question was: WHAT GOOD ADVICE are they talking about?

To see how culpable the popular business press was, I flipped through some past issues of Money magazine as well as Kiplinger's, which tends to be more sober. Both are filled with advice about how to make the most of the unprecedented boom in equities, and technology stocks in particular, by buying even more stocks. You have to look hard to find a discussion of the merits of bonds Ñ even though short-term rates were then about 6 percent, which seems pretty juicy by today's anemic standards.

Imagine how you would feel if you had bought some of Money's 'best investments.' They included Lucent Technologies, then $77 per share and recently just under a dollar; Qualcomm, then $364 and now around $26; and Broadcom, then $190 and now under $15. Ouch.

There was even a story about 'sudden wealth syndrome,' which the magazine described as the 'latest psychiatric malady of newly minted millionaires.' Don't you wish you had that problem now? These days, many investors are rethinking their plans for early retirement that were to have been bankrolled by their bulging stock portfolios and are resigning themselves to staying on the job for a few more years.

Even Kiplinger's had trouble containing itself at the start of 2000. 'We haven't seen the last of the good old days,' it proclaimed in its January issue. 'How does 'Dow 25,000 by 2010' sound as a rallying cry for the first decade of the new millennium?' it asked. Actually, it sounds like a fairy tale.

Then the magazine announced that 'technology remains the place to be' and listed its choice of 'winners for the coming year.' They included, among other stocks, Cisco Systems, then $84 and now under $13; MCI, then $87 and later to become part of WorldCom and the country's largest bankruptcy filing; and Broadvision, then $82 and now under $2.

Of course, you might wonder what I was writing at the time. Saved by the bell. The Portland Tribune wasn't yet on the scene, so this column wasn't appearing. But chances are that had the paper been in existence, I would have been beating the same drum as everyone else. It's hard to look a bull market in the eye.

The country's mania for stocks was epitomized by the best-selling 1999 book 'Dow 36,000.' The authors, economist Kevin Hassett and journalist James Glassman, argued that at 9,000 (which is where the Dow was when the book came out), the Dow was grossly undervalued. They predicted that it soon would rise to 36,000, saying their 'best guess' was within three to five years.

Well, we've had almost three years of terrible stock performances since then. And while anything is possible, a 36,000 reading on the Dow doesn't appear to be just around the corner. In fact, even a Dow 9,000 would look pretty good.

The fact that the book was taken seriously, much less became a best seller, demonstrates the power that the media have in influencing public opinion. It also demonstrates just how risky it is to let investment suggestions by journalists help determine where you put your money.

At best, the media offer a first draft on history. The media can help shed light on the sentiments of people with whom you don't ordinarily come in contact, such as individuals from different economic, political and geographic backgrounds. They can tell you what government and business leaders are doing and thinking. If you can sift through that information and use it to make intelligent investment decisions, that's great.

But the minute you depend on media recommendations to decide what investments to make, you're on dangerous ground.

Deborah Rankin, an award-winning former personal finance columnist for The New York Times, is based in Portland. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..