The financial media may be your worst enemy

The business of financial news reporting has achieved a high level of sophistication and timeliness. Almost anything noteworthy that happens around the world is instantaneously transmitted to you from a variety of sources. The question is should an investor act on that news?media

The short answer is no, not unless the event is truly catastrophic—nuclear war, end of the world type stuff. Achieving your financial goals and objectives requires a well-thought out approach and an investment process, which is by its nature long-term. That process will almost always be at cross purposes with those of the news media. Why?

It begins with the media’s time horizon and business model. A media organization’s goal is to bring you breaking news first. By its very definition, it is largely short-term in nature. “Turkey shoots down Russian jet invading its airspace,” is a recent example of breaking news. That story will have legs to run for a while or be bumped aside by the next newsworthy event, depending on developments.

In the meantime, the stock markets in Europe and the U.S. sold off in reaction to this event, fearing that the situation might escalate. What should you do? Ask yourself if this is truly an event that should disrupt your long-term plans to save for retirement. Most reasonable investors would answer no.

Why is breaking news so important to the media? Most news organizations’ source of revenue and profits is generated by advertising dollars. How advertisers decide on who gets what of their budget depends on market share, especially in electronic media where most of us get our news.

The more market share you command, the more money you make. And all of this is measured in minutes, hours, days and weeks by rating organizations that make a living selling that data to the Fortune 500 companies. As such there is an intense drive to keep your “viewership” by whatever means possible.

In the financial community this is most often accomplished by appealing to either fear or greed. Headlines and sound bites that promise to tell you why this company could see its value cut in half or what will move markets tomorrow or next week or whether or not the Russians will ”strike back” at Turkey are the hooks the media uses to trigger fear or greed in most investors. It works remarkably well.

The problem is that fear and greed have nothing to do with rational investing. I often tell my clients that by the time the news gets to you, the retail investor, it has been discounted seven ways to Sunday by the markets. The more popular the investment theme becomes in the media, the more cautious you should become. The opposite holds true when the media turns negative.

Increasingly, the media has contributed to what I call a herd effect in the markets. When markets pull back (and they always do), news reporters treat it as if it were big news. The further markets fall, the more the news media attempts to increase the drama with headlines that promise even darker days ahead. The same is true on big up days. The only purpose this serves is to increase ‘viewership”, ratings and a larger share of advertising dollars.

If you listen and act on this hysteria, the only thing that is guaranteed is that you will sell low and buy high over and over again. I know it is difficult to ignore, but one of the worst mistakes you can make as an investor is to fall prey to the day-to-day noise in the media. Use the media as a source of information and for entertainment but don’t confuse the two. The media is no substitute for a rational investment process.

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