Pundits don’t have to account for missteps

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One hundred years from now, when cultural histories of this era are written, entire chapters will be devoted to the effects on society of the 24-hour news cycle and the 24/7 Internet.

In the investing world, this media bandwidth has provided a forum for a generation of gurus who tell us what we should do with our money. As if that weren’t enough, when we’re away from the big screen we now have millions of apps to guide our smartphones in telling us what we should do.

Thus has arrived the current era of financial gurus.

Wherever there is television, radio reception or an Internet connection, these self-appointed seers can be found, spouting their predictions with a self-assurance that belies their undistinguished records.

These gurus, who publish their predictions as pundits, are usually wrong — but not always. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

While investors can do well by developing a belief system and a process to invest based on those beliefs, gurus and pundits are concerned with enhancing their reputations rather than your wallet.

They know people have short memories. One reason the guru industry flourishes is that, unlike quarterbacks or basketball players, they aren’t held accountable for their accuracy percentage. Predictions are issued and fail to come true, and then it’s on to the next thing. Later, they may look back and brazenly glom on to the actual development they didn’t predict as though it were inevitable.

If one of these gurus makes 80 brash predictions and two of them come to pass, people may not notice the 78 misses. The key to this disconnection is that most gurus have no skin in the game. They are fortune-tellers who run no risk of financial loss as a result of their incorrect predictions. They do not lose their jobs when they are wrong. They suffer no ill effects. Instead, you do — if you listen to them and act on what they say.

Let’s take a look under the hood of some of America’s favorite pundits. Let’s start with raving, screaming Jim Cramer. In 2008, Cramer told us that Goldman Sachs would finish the year at $300 a share. After starting 2008 at about $200 a share, Goldman Sachs finished the year at $84.39 per share. Five years later, it hovers at about half of his “inevitable” price.

Is he disgraced and off the air? No, you can tune in for his newest ideas every day. His ethics are less than exemplary and his record on predictions is laughable, but millions of viewers hang on his every word.

Then there’s Suze Orman. Let’s be kind and just look at her recent predictions. One was that gold would rise to $2,000 an ounce. Nope! Gold peaked at $1,921 an ounce in September 2011, but it is now in a slide, chagrining those who had confidence in Orman’s groundless confidence in such a highly changeable investment as a precious metal. Apparently unbeknownst to Orman, precious metals have a long history of not acquiring real value over time. Because of this, they are best used in portfolios in small amounts as a defensive investment.

Another choice bit of Orman wisdom was that the housing market would still be depressed today. Wrong again. While you can debate the strength of the housing market going forward, 2012 saw rising prices and a strengthening market. The rest of her ideas for last year included a new recession and inflation heating up to more than 4 percent annually.

If gurus’ predictions so seldom prove accurate, why do people listen to them?

One reason the cult of pundits has thrived is that it’s easier to tune in to them than to assemble a more complex, nuanced picture of things.

Another reason is that these predictions are crafted to appeal to the two emotions most likely to derail your investing success: fear and greed. Fear boosts television ratings and sells some products, while greed is harnessed to sell financial services and products.

It’s fun to guess where the economy and the markets are going.

But don’t take gurus’ predictions seriously. They can all do more damage than good to your portfolio.

And while your investments suffer, they’ll just go on to their next piece of sage advice.

Ted Schwartz, a certified financial planner, is president and chief investment officer of Capstone Investment Financial Group in Colorado Springs http://capstoneinvest.net, advising individual investors and endowments. Schwartz holds a B.A. from Duke University and an M.A. from Oregon State University. He can be reached at ted@capstoneinvest.com.