For some time, including presently, investment advisors warned people about losing ground economically by failing to invest their money. It was and is still argued by many ‘pros’ that only the foolish or insane who feared the integrity of the markets would stuff their cash in a mattress for a zero percentage return.
But guess what?
Those crazy folks who stuffed their US dollars into their mattresses did well last year compared to the pros. And not just “pretty well”, the investment crazies had a spectacular year compared to most of the brilliant minds on wall street, the silly financial reporters on CNBC and CNN (yes I’m talking to YOU Ali Velshi and Michelle CB !) and your local financial advisor all of whom took as gospel the idea that you need to invest your money in the markets and – depending on your age – generally weight that investment towards equities.
I’m not saying all those “pros” could have known this was terrible advice for 2008 but I do hold the financial news reporters, TV pundits, SEC, Wall Street, Democrats and Republicans very accountable for failing to at least *discuss * the many smoking guns that probably would have given us enough insight to create a soft landing scenario rather than what was very close to a global financial catastrophe.
Let’s do the math (for the sake of simplicity I’m avoiding currency issues though they’d also very much favor any international mattress stuffers out there if they used dollars which are generally up compared to most other currencies):
Insane mattress stuffer rate of return in 2008: 0%
S&P Index Rate of return: -37%
Thus our insane investors outperformed the DOW by 31%, the S&P by 37% and the Nasdaq by a whopping 42%.
Almost universally the “stuff your money” advice would also have thrashed the advice of the “pros” thanks to commissions, Bernie Madoffs, etc. My understanding is that those factors generally mean that managed yields are below the index averages though obviously there are some exceptions. However I think the lesson from the meltdown, the generally “trailing the news” TV pundit advice, Madoff, and everything else is that even though 2008 was hardly a typical year, it’s always been true that you are very unlikely to pick an “expert” who will outperform the averages over time. There are such people, but the odds are very much against you picking one because there is little reason to believe that past investment records give much indication of future results. ie it may not even be possible to identify great stock pickers until … after their records are complete.
I’m increasingly convinced that if you examine most success stories you will find moderately clever folks who were lucky enough to be positioned in the path of opportunity rather than brilliant folks who were the architects of their own fortunes. I’ve noted that most super successful folks acknowledge this luck factor, where most modestly successful folks give themselves quite a bit of credit for lucky guesses or good fortune coming their way.
Unfortunately most studies of “success” tend to look at successful enterprises and then generalize from that information rather than do the far more interesting and relevant study which would examine a huge number of successes and failures and look for the factors that seemed to drive each one.
Peter Rip writes a great blog about Venture Capital investing and usually I like his take on things but was surprised to hear his pollyanna optimistic assessments for the coming year in the Technology VC world. He predicts that:
Many good businesses will be left on the beach as the rest are washed out to sea – the remaining VCs will invest in them and both the entrepreneurs and VCs will get rewarded as the survivors gain market share and become successes in the economic recover.
Although Rip’s right that there will be *some* companies left standing I think “many” is way too optimistic. Sure there are always at least a few great opportunities with great challenges, but unless we see more stability and less uncertaintly in the global biz climate I can’t be this optimistic about high potential returns, let alone positive returns on most technology business investments in 2009. I’d predict that 75% or more of all the VC funded startups alive now will be dead by Jan 1 2010 unless they are currently turning a profit. Personally I’m more bullish on residential real estate than technology startups, which increasingly face huge problems from increasingly defective ad-funded business models.
Another factor depressing potential returns is that we will have far, far, far more government money in many business equations than at any time in history and one has to wonder how Government sponsored businesses may turn out as their success increasingly will come from pleasing bureaucrats (who are often very antagonistic to private wealth) more than shareholders.
But hey, thanks to Peter for a dose of hope for 2009 even though I’ll be happy with anything over 0% for this year. Last year the crazies had the best investment advice and it was *very good* advice in the sense it outperformed the markets handsomely. For 2009 who is to say the “experts” will fare any better than the crazies?