Don’t Let Shutdown, Default Anxiety Influence Investments

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By Daniel Solin

The financial media loves a crisis, and we have no shortage of them. The government shutdown and the looming possibility of a default provide ample fodder for those whose livelihoods depend on readers, viewers and advertising revenue.

The major advertisers in financial media are members of the securities industry. This industry depends on trading by investors to increase fees and commissions. It’s the perfect storm for investors. Much of the media acts as a shill for its advertisers by increasing fear and anxiety, which, in turn, stimulates trading as investors flee to safety and wait on the sidelines until things settle down.

Bouncing in and out of the market in response to market volatility is a recipe for poor returns. A University of Michigan study commissioned by Towneley Capital Management found that investors who missed less than 1 percent of the best trading days from 1963 through 2004 did not capture 96 percent of market returns. Another analysis of market-timing strategies over a 10-year period found that 80 percent of market timers failed over any reasonable period of time. Those are not encouraging odds.

Terrible advice abounds in these times. Jim Cramer, a common source of hype and misinformation, warns that all stocks will “get clocked” as the prospect of default nears. He suggests buying dividend-paying stocks as “bounce back candidates.” Cramer doesn’t reference the extensive data indicating that using high-dividend stocks as a substitute for safe bonds is risky and a poor substitute for an intelligently implemented value strategy.

A blog post from CNBC reports a prediction from investment bank Societe Generale that U.S. shares are “headed for a big drop in the first quarter of 2014, followed by a year-long period of stagnation.” Another post from CNBC warns that a “debt freeze would throw the economy hard into reverse and another deep recession.”

You don’t need to look far to understand how the securities industry benefits from stoking fear and anxiety. A Bloomberg article discusses the sad plight of more than 30,000 investors who succumbed to the pitch of Morgan Stanley (MS) and invested in a managed futures fund called Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Spectrum Technical LP. The fund was supposed to “potentially profit at times when traditional markets are experiencing losses.”

Here’s the good news. The fund did make profits of more than $490 million for the decade ending in 2012. How did the investors do? They received no returns. More than $498 million was paid to Morgan Stanley in commissions, expenses and fees.

This obscene result is not atypical. The article reports that 89 percent of the $11.51 billion of gains in 63 managed futures funds went to fees, commissions and expenses during the same decade.

Once you understand that much of the financial media’s goal is to assist its advertisers in transferring your wealth to them, you can view the information provided by them with a new perspective.

Dan Solin is the director of investor advocacy for the BAM Alliance and a wealth adviser with Buckingham Asset Management. He is a New York Times best-selling author of the Smartest series of books. His next book, The Smartest Sales Book You’ll Ever Read, will be published March 3, 2014.

The views of the author are his alone and may not represent the views of his affiliated firms. Any data, information and content on this blog is for information purposes only and should not be construed as an offer of advisory services.

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