Investor beware: Bright, shiny headlines are not always as they appear

Welcome to the information age! We can probably find out anything we want to on the internet. Millions of pages of information are available on everything from healthcare to sports to home plumbing to investing and more. All of it available at your fingertips, quite literally through your phone.

Will this make you a better investor?

Unfortunately, only if you are able to discern which information you should trust. And therein lies the challenge. A myriad of self-interests (by the authors and publishers) are represented in newsletters, blogs, news articles, interviews and webinars.

Let’s explore a few of the contributing issues and why you should show caution as you click on a link for “the greatest stock recommendation ever made.”

How far writers go to produce narratives

Lately there has been a lot of financial press about a possible impending market downturn. The stories have grown, and more and more journalists are participating.

Is this forecast a likely prediction? We just don’t know. No one mentions that part, do they?

What we do know is that if you are a long-term investor, you should remain invested through downturns, keeping your portfolio in a position to capture the longer-term upside when it occurs.

More and more prognosticators are writing articles about a downturn. The sheer volume seems to provide credibility. That is, until a series of events happen that highlight the lengths writers go to in order to produce a particular narrative.

The Wall Street Journal published an article with this headline on November 22: “Bridgewater Makes $1.5 Billion Options Bet on Falling Market.” Eye catching.

When you actually read the article, you find that it says, “It couldn’t be determined why Bridgewater made the investment.” This might be the nugget of golden truth in the article, but how many read the article to that point? Or at all? Did they just note the headline and draw a conclusion?

Additional statements in the article indicated that the position was being used to bet on market developments tied to political forecasting. (And yes, that is a tenuous set of links in any case — and an unproven set in this case.)

While many such articles are published, most funds quietly continue to go about their business with no direct response. However, this article was met with a rebuttal on social media platforms by Bridgewater’s co-chairman and co-chief investment officer:

Investors beware of bright shiny headlines

There are reasons behind transactions that you’re not aware of

When an article is written about a single transaction from third-party data, you really don’t know what the firm is trying to achieve with the transaction. It may be noteworthy in its large size. But when seeing the raw data, it is impossible to know whether the trade was a hedge or a pure bet. (In today’s markets, by the way, the majority of such trading leans towards hedging or complex transactions that are not pure bets.)

You don’t see if there are other parts of this trade in other segments of the market that when integrated with this position may show something different. In fact, it may be an offset against underlying holdings that you are not aware of and the firm does not disclose.

You also don’t know if a trade is driven by specific client activity, thus requiring a specific trade. And nothing in this type of decision is indicative of a specific call on a market or security direction. You just don’t have enough information to know that.

The financial press equally does not know that. They may have a glimpse at some transaction data, but they still are unlikely to have any knowledge of all of the factors above. As a savvy consumer you should be wary of such reporting.

Headlines are written to attract, not inform

The other issue in the press is the depth of the description of the headline. From traditional press and printed papers or journals, right through to today, headlines have typically been written by someone other than the author of the article.

Initially they were crafted by editors or copy editors to make sure they fit the column space and layout in the newspaper.

Today they need to catch your attention and cause enough interest to make you click the associated link. It is increasingly the case that headlines are not a summary of the article but rather an attention-grabbing device to get more clicks on links, which is the new measure of the success of an article.

For all of these reasons, the headline itself is not informative, so anyone gleaning information from headlines is likely not well informed.

The Bridgewater article mentioned repeatedly that the author did not know the basis for the trade. But this might have been overshadowed by the headline and the first several paragraphs of the article, which made no mention of that.

The takeaways

Anytime you are drawn to making an active trading bet as a result of an article or recommendation, it is a good idea to stop and think about the benefits of such transactions. When you execute a transaction to buy or sell a security or group of securities, you typically pay a commission and/or a custody fee. These fees benefit the brokerage. This benefit is the one sure thing within the transaction. Whether the trade will benefit you is unknown.

In all of this, there is a lesson that keeps surfacing. Rather than looking at articles that build reasons to buy or sell certain securities or groups of securities, if you are a long-term investor, staying the course is probably a prudent way to maximize your return.

It is very difficult to time the market. Statistics even for professional active managers show pretty significant underperformance. SPIVA reports that in the U.S., 78% of large cap funds underperformed the S&P 500 over five years. Statistical history suggests the odds are very remote that a trade generated by a specific news article will somehow benefit you.

It is even less certain that you will be able to capitalize on an outside event driving the market in a specific direction in a specific timeframe.

Many of the current crop of downturn articles are based on political predictions and possible market impact. Such predictions are made from all sides with all sorts of ramifications, so this is not a commentary on a good or bad or market-friendly political outcome. Rarely are such events realized and captured in the market so directly. There are just too many other factors that have a far greater impact on the market returns. These political events may be too far in the future to even predict with any reasonable accuracy. And if the event itself happens, it is not clear that the market will respond in a short, measurable and expected way.

Clearly the same lesson keeps bubbling to the surface. Stay the course. Understand that this will benefit you the most in the long-term. And use a great deal of discernment in reading the financial press and clicking on eye-catching headlines.

If you have any questions about the topics covered above, reach out to Wipfli Financial Advisors.

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Investors beware of bright shiny headlines

Wipfli Financial Advisors, LLC (“Wipfli Financial”) is an investment advisor registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); however, such registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training and no inference to the contrary should be made. Wipfli Financial is a proud affiliate of Wipfli LLP, a national accounting and consulting firm. Information pertaining to Wipfli Financial’s management, operations, services, fees and conflicts of interest is set forth in Wipfli Financial’s current Form ADV Part 2A brochure and Form CRS, copies of which are available from Wipfli Financial upon request at no cost or at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov. Wipfli Financial does not provide tax, accounting or legal services. The views expressed by the author are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Wipfli Financial or its affiliates. The information contained in any third-party resource cited herein is not owned or controlled by Wipfli Financial, and Wipfli Financial does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of any information that may be found in such resources. Links to any third-party resource are provided as a courtesy for reference only and are not intended to be, and do not act as, an endorsement by Wipfli Financial of the third party or any of its content or use of its content. The standard information provided in this blog is for general purposes only and should not be construed as, or used as a substitute for, financial, investment or other professional advice. If you have questions regarding your financial situation, you should consult your financial planner, investment advisor, attorney or other professional.
Janice Deringer
Janice Deringer

Consultant

Janice L. Deringer is a member of Wipfli Financial's Investment Committee and a consultant who focuses on serving individual and corporate clients. She brings over 20 years of institutional investment management experience to her strong interest in educating women and individuals regarding financial decisions, realities and possibilities.

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Investor beware: Bright, shiny headlines are not always as they appear

time to read: 5 min