The Garrulous Jay – The Media Paradox

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It took studying French for me to realise that “the news” is literally the plural of the word ‘new’. In French it’s “les nouvelles”. In other words, the news is a report on what has changed in the world: what’s different. Investors should always bear this in mind.

Last weekend’s FT Money section lead with the headline, “Time to invest in emerging markets?”. The Long View article on the same day was titled, “Corporate bonds become asset class du jour”.

Meanwhile in Podcast Land, the most recent episode of Merryn Talks Money is titled, “The Year of the Value Hunter Has Arrived”. Perhaps even more starkly, though, the 27th January episode ran with, “Deflation May Be Coming Sooner Than You Think”, only to be followed a week later by “Why Governments Won’t Let Inflation Go Away”.

All of the above exemplify a fundamental paradox that exists between the media and what should constitute a prudent approach to investing.

The media have to come up with something new all the time… Emerging Markets, Corporate Bonds, Small Caps, Value, Passive: whatever!

This is perfectly summarised by those two French words “du jour” in The Long View piece, where the process of asset allocation has perhaps unwittingly been reduced to the level of selecting an item from a restaurant’s menu. Investing shouldn’t be about deciding what to eat: it should be about deciding what to plant!

It is also noticeable that the media suffer from what I would call “buyer’s bias”.

In other words, they tend towards telling readers and listeners what to buy, and are far more reluctant to suggest what to sell. For most investors this is actually pretty unhelpful as they are far more likely to be managing an existing portfolio than seeking to invest fresh cash.

I think there are good reasons why this is the case: it’s easier and it’s more commercial. Readers/listeners prefer to be pointed in the direction of opportunity than to be confronted with gloom and fear about their potential mistakes. Furthermore, you don’t need to know what investors already own to tell them what to buy, whereas you sort of do to tell them what to sell.

To be fair buyer’s bias has always pervaded markets. After all regulators have never intervened to stop investors buying at the top of a bull market, but they’ve been happy to ban short-selling in the depths of a bear market. But that’s a Jay for another day.

I am not suggesting that investors should stop reading the financial pages of the press, switch to another podcast and live in a news vacuum. But, as with any purchase, caveat emptor applies. One needs to be mindful of the fact that there may not be total alignment of interests between you and your paper or podcast.

Older readers may remember The Whacky Races cartoon in which Dick Dastardly is constantly exhorting Muttley to “do something”. Sensible investors know that most of the time it’s better to do nothing.