Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One of the things I have learned in the past year of economic craziness is a new way of looking at the stock market. In the news and in overheard conversations, there is continuous hand wringing about when the market will "come back." This treats the stock market like it's the patient rather than the thermometer. Getting stocks to go up must mean the patient is recovering, this view believes, when it may well mean nothing of the sort.

No, the market is simply the thermometer. To think otherwise is to act like the child sticking a thermometer under hot water (so they can stay home) or under cold (so they can go out and play). As I write, the DOW has jumped 200 points on Citigroup's report that it made a profit in the first two months of the year. Everyone with any awareness--including most of the people trading today--knows that Citigroup is a basket case and probably will not survive in its present form. That it could show a paper profit (if even true, which is at least dubious given previous bank self-reporting) for a couple months says nothing about it's health, let alone that of the economy as a whole. But for the moment the stock market is a having a burst of "irrational exhuberance."

A term that was heard often from pollsters during last year's election and now from market watchers is "noise." Noise is the meaningless up-and-down movement of numeric measurements. The stock market is full of noise. Sometimes the noise gets loud but it's still noise. We need to stop paying attention to the noise. The obvious message of the market heard above the noise is that the patient--the American, and indeed world, economy--is sick, and probably very sick.

Jon Stewart's rant against CNBC (see below) is part of a growing awareness of the fraudulence of much of the whole personal financial investment and advice industry. For years critics have been telling us that managed mutual funds never equal, let alone out perform, the market over the long-run. Some may have bursts of "luck" but it never lasts, and even then much of the profit ends up in the pockets of the managers. Only index funds come close to matching market performance because by definition they are a slice of the market. They generate very low fees for brokers, however, and therefore get little promotion from them.

Brokers and fund managers make money by buying and selling stocks--not by generating income for their clients. They make money whether their investments strategies work or not. In recent years a great myth has developed that the ever-rising stock market is the place for ordinary people to "make money" or even get rich. The parallel myth, of course, is that housing prices will always go up. The collapse of stock prices is as much the bursting of a bubble as is the implosion of the real estate market.

To keep clients, or to bring them back, the financial industry--and it's organs like CNBC--must now maintain the chatter about the market's return. The anxiety among investors is that they might "miss it" since price recoveries can be as fast and unexpected as this fall's drop was. In reality, however, no one knows and a good case can be made that the market's climb back will be long and slow. A piece in the Financial Times (excerpted here) argues that the world economy has taken a major hit and "bouncing back" hardly seems to be in the cards. Lots of old ways of doing things are not coming back so there is going to need to be a lot of experimentation. If there is one thing Wall Street doesn't like it's uncertainty but that's what we've got in spades.

Ultimately the stock market is a measure of the health of the economy. It can't be anything else. To try to give it a reality of its own disconnected from that will only result in more of the fantasy and fraud that has sent it crashing down around us.

No comments: