I talk to experts on money every day, people whose opinions on markets, economics, personal finance and more should hold more weight than those of the rest of us.
Yet it is clear that one thing average Americans have been doing during their quarantine/shelter-at-home time is building their knowledge on seemingly every subject. You see it in the rancorous discussions about coronavirus itself, in opinions about the best way to reopen the economy and more.
As individuals become “expert,” they often tend to disagree with true authorities. Loudly.
They scoff at people of achievement, tout their you-can-do-this-at-home experiments as if they have passed rigorous challenges, and remind you that the Declaration of Independence noted that “all men are created equal,” taking that to mean that their insight is as good or better than the next person’s.
It has spilled over into the financial world, where you can see stock market chatter and money and investment advice showing up seemingly everywhere, from new blogs and podcasts to sports or hobby message boards where financial fans are holding spirited “off-topic discussions.”
I’ve sat in on a few of those chats in recent weeks, mostly watching and listening without participating, occasionally talking with participants privately.
I saw one lengthy post on reopening the economy where a feisty participant gave a dramatic — and wrong — evaluation of “deaths of despair,” an economic condition that he feared would be exacerbated by the viral economy.
Offline, I directed the man to a recent interview from my show, Money Life with Chuck Jaffe, featuring Princeton University professor Angus Deaton, who has a new book on the subject, but the online poster insisted that what he had read – presumably thanks to a vigorous Google search or Wikipedia post — had given him “a very solid understanding — as good as anyone — on the subject.”
All people are entitled to equal rights, but being “equal” does not mean that everyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.
Case in point: Deaton won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015 for, among other things, his work on deaths of despair. I’d trust him more than the average guy — even the above-average guy — who is hanging out on message board talking politics and economics.
Likewise, I witnessed vigorous discussions about stocks, most recently saying how Warren Buffett was crazy for selling airlines if he wants to “buy low and sell high.” The guys in the conversation were arguing as if they were Wall Street research analysts, though they weren’t; Buffett, meanwhile, isn’t perfect, but he’s clearly above-average.
The more these varied discussions strayed from their initial focus, the more dangerous and kooky the advice became.
In the financial world, disagreement makes a market.
That’s why there is plenty of room to disagree, even among true experts. My show recently has featured several animated discussions about whether the recent market decline – or the next one – has created what amounts to “low-risk buying opportunities” or whether buying stocks under any circumstances truly could be considered low-risk.
Moreover, experts are not immune from bad decisions and outright blunders.
Still, experts typically have a better shooting percentage than amateurs. They don’t keep their jobs long without that.
In the democratized, modern investment world — where individuals have low- and no-cost access to trades and market tools once only available with the help of a broker — there is no shortage of advice being passed along as “expert.”
There is only a shortage of real experts.
“Any man or woman dressing as a professional is a qualified expert, evident by the fact that they appear on CNBC,” says Meir Statman, professor of finance at Santa Clara University and the author of several books on behavioral finance, most recently “Finance for Normal People.” Statman is being facetious; he knows that people cloaked as experts often are giving unqualified evidence.
“The problem in investments is the noise between the wisdom of action and its outcome,” he says. “Three out of four bad meals at a restaurant would be good evidence that this restaurant is best avoided, so three good outcomes out of four choices certify you as an investment genius.”
Your job as an individual investor – especially in turbulent times – isn’t necessarily to become expert in managing money, but rather to weed out the fakes, frauds, charlatans and no-talents while increasing your confidence and conviction in the moves you are making.
“People are looking for information they can use, and when they see a so-called expert who narrows down advice to something that can be acted on, too many people say, ‘If he’s willing to tell me what to buy, he must be an expert,’” says Michael Falk, partner at Focus Consulting Group who is widely recognized for his work on decision-making processes.
“You need to know where they come from, what makes them expert. Look for some substance; they’re not an expert because their advice sounds good to you or validates your own thinking.”
As the economy reopens and the stock market goes through some inevitable struggles over several years – because the full effects of the pandemic will take that long to play out economically – investors must have confidence in their own path and progress.
Look for real, true experts; dig into to someone’s background before putting your money on their advice, whether you get that counsel from your adviser, on television, from a show like mine, or in an online discussion.
There is no one right way to investment success, but the fastest way to fail is to flop around from one strategy to another and the next. The easiest way to change strategies constantly is to not trust your experts, or to be overconfident in your own abilities.
Guarding against that – having a strategy and sticking to your plan at a time that is making other investors lose their heads – will be crucial to riding out the viral economy to long-term success.
I sincerely believe that to be true.
I also have heard that from a lot of real, verified experts.