IN THIS GAME
, there are always people whispering in your ear. From newsletter writers and Wall Street analysts to friends with tips and advice from the, ahem, loudmouth expert on TV, there are literally hundreds of financial columnists, business reporters, money managers and message-board contributors eager to tell you where the market may or may not be headed. For every bullish voice, there's usually an accompanying bearish one as well. The cacophony doesn't inform most investors; it deafens them.
Yet like it or not, financial news is hot and getting hotter. In the last few weeks alone, News Corp. launched a massive bid for Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal and co-owner of SmartMoney.com, and Thomson announced a deal to buy market-information company Reuters Group for $17 billion. CNBC is once again on in bars and health clubs around the world, and Conde Nast launched Portfolio, a glossy new monthly magazine. Indeed, when it comes to financial news and information, there's more of it than ever.
For me, this sets up a bit of a quandary. Because while I'm passionately interested in the market, I'm compelled to do everything in my power in avoid reading, hearing or talking about it. Regular readers know exactly why: The more I hear what others think of the market, the more likely I'm going to be influenced, no matter how strong my discipline.
If you'd ever been asked not to think of a pink elephant, then you know that's almost always one of the first things that pops into your head. Much to my dismay, the same holds true for investing. So if I read article after article about how promising China is, about how there are still millions of folks who've never made a telephone call and about how stocks like China Unicom and Baidu.com are must-own names, I simply can't help but be influenced. Even if I don't buy those names, the exposition itself has an effect on me. It could be as subtle as the hesitation to sell a losing bet in an unrelated emerging market that, had I not read the article, I would have been much quicker to dump.
So I don't subscribe to any newsletters or read any analyst or brokerage research. While I'm told there are very entertaining shows on CNBC, shows you'd want to watch even if the market was bad or there wasn't a particularly pretty female host, I avoid them like the plague. I do watch Fox News Channel, but specifically avoid the business programming and literally turn off market updates I happen to catch. The only business TV I watch is the 22 minutes a week on which I appear.
You might be surprised at what I do watch: hour after hour of the Food Network. Indeed, I've literally never seen "Mad Money" or "Bulls and Bears," but I wouldn't miss an episode of Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Channel about a hip pastry chef and his gloriously Gen-X Baltimore bakery. There's lots of talk about fondant and royal icing, but not a mention of interest rates or the S&P 500.
I used to stay up nights watching Bloomberg for the Asian and European market coverage, but now I simply cuddle up with a Hewlett-Packard laptop, wireless access and real-time quotes on everything from the Nikkei to the Norwegian kroner.
While I have plenty of respect for television business news, I simply don't want to be influenced by it even by the order of stories they choose to cover. If an anchor leads with fancy graphics about the tech-stock rally and buries word about the falling dollar in the last two minutes of the broadcast, which story do you think you'll be likely to weight?
The printed word is not bound by a "hard out" commercial break, so I opt to read my financial news. Some of it is actually useful, and reading itself also happens to be relaxing and pleasurable activity. Like Alan Greenspan, I spend many hours in the tub with a stack of reading material about the financial world.
I try to read only select financial news, not analysis or opinion. And I've trained myself to read it in a particular way, concentrating on certain elements and either discounting or skipping others altogether.
I'll start with an example of the type of information I tend to avoid, not because it's false, but because it's just not helpful to me.
"XYZ reported late Tuesday that fiscal second-quarter profit climbed 25% on strong Internet sales growth and increased sales in its retail stores. For the quarter ended May 5, the company said it had a profit of $125 million, up 15% in the year-ago period. XYZ is considered by analysts to be the most profitable company in this industry, although same-store sales rose 3.5%, short of expectations of a 4.25% increase.">
For me, that was 70 worthless words and a few wasted seconds of my time. We know that profit and sales were up, but haven't heard a bit about how the stock has acted or reacted to the news. That's where the real story is. If you buy a stock on good earnings, you are usually buying about six or 10 months too late.
The type of columns I like to read focus on the price action of securities themselves, like this Bloomberg article on the bond market from last Friday.
"Treasurys fell the most since January as signs of U.S. economic strength reduced bets on a cut in borrowing costs by the Federal Reserve this year.>
"The yield on the benchmark 10-year note advanced this week to a three-month high as reports showed higher-than-expected hiring and consumer confidence. Policy makers last week held their benchmark rate steady, saying inflation remains the 'predominant' concern.">
Right off the top we know Treasurys dropped sharply on Friday, which pushed the yield on the 10-year note to a three-month high. That's useful and tradable information. The comment that "reduced bets on a cut in borrowing costs" is a little misleading, of course, as every "bet" in bonds and in every other market is two-sided. If someone buys, someone else sells.
"People betting on an easing in rates and a more pronounced economic slowdown are throwing in the towel, and that's leading to higher rates globally," said Kevin Cronin, head of investments in Boston at Putnam Investments, which manages $66 billion in bonds.>
Most articles have this feature: a fairly meaningless quote from a well-credentialed market professional. I usually skip that and head right for the meat:
The benchmark 10-year note's yield rose 13 basis points, or 0.13 percentage point, to 4.80% this week, according to bond broker Cantor Fitzgerald LP. It was the highest yield since Feb. 13 and the biggest weekly gain since Jan. 12. The price of the 4 % security maturing in May 2017 fell 1 1/32, $10.31 per $1,000 face amount, to 97 19/32. Price and yield move inversely.>
For those who can't follow the bond market all day, that's exactly the news their eye should be trained to look for: Not what folks think> will happen in the market, but what's actually> happening in the market in the here and now. That's what I read because that's the information that matters. With few exceptions, most everything else tends to put us on the wrong track.
Jonathan Hoenig is managing member at Capitalistpig Hedge Fund LLC. At the time of writing, Hoenig's fund held no positions in any of the securities mentioned.>