"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 October 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
No Guarantee of Future Results


[you ever notice a suggestion box at work?]

So did you feel a chill as the big

day passed?


Probably not. Since the 10th

anniversary of Black Monday

happened to fall on a Sunday, we

were mostly (but not entirely)

spared a tremor in the stock

market (though we did endure a

small earthquake of

thumb-sucking conniptions in the

financial press). In fact, the

New York Stock Exchange's

"circuit breakers," which stop

trading when the action gets too

hot (sort of like a timeout for

cigar aficionados) mean we'll

never again see the likes of

that October again.


[supermarkets have them, your local tacqueria may even solicit the opinion of its patrons - salsa too hot?]

But even if the bottom fell out,

would you worry? After all, what

do you care about a short-term

loss? You're a long-term

investor. You've got a

diversified portfolio. You don't panic.

You know your risk tolerance,

and your disciplined,

incremental investing plan lets

you take advantage of

dollar-cost-averaging. You view

even a market downturn as a

great buy opportunity. You know

it's long-term performance that



Yeah, you and everybody else. We

know the maxims of modern

portfolio theory the way we know

it's illegal to kill a praying

mantis and Thomas Crapper

invented the toilet. Do you know

anybody who thinks it's good to

put all their money in one

stock? Try to time the market?

Who would rather not optimize

investments for long-term

performance? Someone who wants

to get out of stocks because

they're "just too risky"? Has

anyone you know invested all their

money at once and hoped for the

best? Put off planning for the

future? You read about these

nincompoops all the time, so

they must exist.


[today at lunch i pondered with two of my co-workers, what would we even suggest should we actually get a suggestion box here?  first, i was nominated to suggest the suggestion box.]

I have a particular reason for

hoping they exist, because it's

my job to educate them. In my

capacity as a professional

financial pundit, I make a

living assuming investors are

too stupid to grasp a few basic

principles. Here's a suggestion

I recently received about

writing some marketing text:

"This is very high-level, but we

want to make sure words like

'asset allocation,'

'optimization,' and 'modern

portfolio theory' appear in the

text, even if people don't

immediately understand them."

Not understand them? I should be

so lucky!


Or actually, it doesn't matter.

If manna is really the American

religion, then the story of

personal finance is the rosary -

your piety increases in direct

proportion to the number of

times you can repeat it without

variation. More to the point -

since telling the investor how

the smart money spends its

money is worth a fortune in

magazine sales - personal

finance is the rock criticism of

the '90s. You can only run so

many photo spreads of

fund-manager beefcake and

retired couples in warmup suits,

and, to fill up the hole where

news should be, financial

writers roll out the same

can't-lose cant you'd expect to

find in (the

non-personal-finance sections

of) Rolling Stone.


[rootbeer in the water fountains, candy every day ... uhh, we already have that - well basically...]

Rock and stock styles are coming

together in more ways than one -

Fidelity Investments house rag

Worth has an odd-sized,

alternaglossy heft, while

Waters Information Service's

operations trade magazine jazzes

up the fast-paced world of T+3

settlement periods with

Bikini-style anti-layout and

Hard-2-Read fonts. If you're

having trouble distinguishing

financial writing from rock

writing, here's the difference:


Rock journalism: "Combining the

hook-wary riffs of Meat Paddle

with a Son of Spam-like

willingness to experiment with

oblique lyrics, since its last

album J. J. Evans has honed a

style like Pig Black on acid."


Financial journalism: "Eschewing

the risk-averse style of

Witherspoon for a Michael

Price-like willingness to take

advantage of special situations,

in the past two quarters the

Zephyr fund has developed an

investing style like Magellan on



But at least rock criticism

knows where it belongs - in the

hands of contemptible interns

and students who get paid little

or nothing. Personal-finance

palavators get almost as much

attention as the bands they

cover. Money pumps up the George

Costanza-like good looks of ace

reporter Michael Sivy in cover

shots, ad inserts, and special

feature photos. Fidelity's

legendary Peter Lynch actually

has a wonderful track record as

a fund manager, but at his

Worth gig he's a slightly dotty

Mr. Chips - avuncular and wise,

but a bit fusty for the all-bull

future (he's so old he actually

remembers the 1987 crash).


[so, then what do we want at work, that we as workers of new media america can reasonably implore our employers to provide us, no questions asked?]

None of this would matter if the

financial cognoscenti didn't

seem to talk out both sides of

their balance sheets. When

Magellan fund manager Jeff Vinik

suffered a couple bad months,

the Brahmins at Fidelity decided

to dump long-term performance

concerns - and Vinik - into the

Charles. Nothing provides more

fodder for financial "news"

coverage than breathless gossip

about which fund managers have

begun taking large bond

positions and whether that means

we're headed for a new

recession. And, in fact, if the

market is so efficient and

long-haul investing is so

important, why do the

pronouncements of pissy

analysts send stock prices all

over the map? The dissonance

between what the riffraff

understands as good investing

principles and how the financial

industry actually conducts its

business is something that few

people, other than professional

curmudgeons like Frank

Armstrong, have noted.


Financial planning is now the

second highest-paid financial

profession. But where

traditional financial companies

got by providing dubious service

to bumpkins, the online

investing boondoggle makes it

possible for countless mushroom

millionaires to provide even

less service to the Web's

clueless masses. Even William

Sharpe, a Nobel-winning

financial economist and a man

who should know better, is

trying to get into the act,

though his Financial Engines

venture seems to be having

trouble getting out of the

starting gate. As the

indistinguishable risk

tolerance questionnaires ("Would

you spend a US$5,000 windfall on

5,000 lottery tickets?") and

"AI" asset allocation programs

("Here is your personalized

investment advice") pile up, you

begin to understand why mass

customization is so cheap.


[mmmm, i want free cds to listen to at work - like a cd library we can check out, etc - and hey, what a marketing ploy for the record industry; oh, and i would definitely like more couch-like chairs to sit on while typing at the computer - i heard crate and barrel is having a sale this weekend!]

But digital advice is just the

financial planning industry writ

small. In the investing world,

you get what you pay for - and

often you get even less. Except

at my company, that is. If you

think you should keep putting

off planning for the future

because it's "just too

complicated," come see us. After

all, it's your money.

courtesy of La Vache Qui Rit

[Fresh Fish.  If you clicked here, I might make more money. You love The Fish, admit it.  Now click. Click, I say!]