A tax on the unhealthy: BMJ study eviscerates medical talk shows http://t.co/9geVRCratF
— Paul Kedrosky (@pkedrosky) December 20, 2014
The study Kedrosky mentions highlights the poor advice given on two popular daytime shows: Dr. Oz and The Doctors. (The folks at Gizmodo with a less charitable take.) The authors of the BMJ study conclude:
Recommendations made on medical talk shows often lack adequate information on specific benefits or the magnitude of the effects of these benefits. Approximately half of the recommendations have either no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence. Potential conflicts of interest are rarely addressed. The public should be skeptical about recommendations made on medical talk shows.
Which quickly raised the question in my mind: what if we applied this same sort of research methodology to financial television?
— James Osborne, CFP® (@BasonAsset) December 20, 2014
Which of course is a sensible take on things. The basics of financial planning and investment advice really don’t change all that much. Therefore what you seen in the financial media is at best a rehash of this advice or worse speculation about the future. See the exchange below with columnist Jonathan Clements to put this issue in perspective.
Vigeland: You wrote 1,009 columns. Were there any trends in personal finance that surprised you either when they came along or when they went away?
Clements: One of the things that I tell people is there are basically only 20 personal finance stories, which means that I’ve written each of those stories 50 times each and this, of course, is one of the reasons why I thought it was time to give it up. I mean, eventually readers were bound to notice. In terms of trends, what constitutes prudent investment advice has not changed over the past 13 and a half years. What you should have done in 1994 is the same thing you should be doing today in 2008. It’s just that the market’s changed. Something gets hot, everybody gets overly enthusiastic about it. This year it’s commodities. A couple of years ago, it was real estate. We get this continuous new scenario thrown up by the financial markets and we all get all hot and bothered about it, but what you should be doing stays the same. You should be saving regularly, putting money into that 401(k). The answers don’t change; it’s just the scenarios that we’re dealing with.
One thing I have noticed in the financial blogosphere is a shift towards behavioral finance. When I first started blogging the desire for bloggers to provide stock picks and forecast was manifest. Now more of the content I read is focused on providing investors with a better roadmap. Anthony Isola at Malice for all… has a post up with six rules to help you be “less consistently stupid.” And Barry Ritholtz at the Washington Post has a post up with ten takes on how to get back to investing basics.
Either of these posts could have been written any time in the past five years and will likely be relevant five years from now. Good financial advice doesn’t change much over time. This underlines the contradiction of the financial media and financial television. The amount of new, useful intelligent things to say about finance and investing is drastically less then time/space that needs to be filled.
None of this speaks to the actual validity of what is written and said in the financial media. As noted above much of what is said in the media is either incorrect, invalid, irrelevant or simply inappropriate advice for the general investing public. It would be pretty boring to repeat what Jonathan Clements keeps saying:
First, it’s still impossible to forecast stock returns over the short run. Second, costs matter, and higher costs are predictive of lower returns. Third, taxes are costs, and focusing on tax efficiency is critical. Finally, it’s more important to concentrate on risk management than on returns, which means one should keep a relatively constant exposure to high-risk stocks and low-risk bonds.
Advice like this fits the idea of not steering investors into risky or uncharted territory. As I noted a long time ago the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t specifically mention the idea of “first doing no harm.” Financial commentators would do well to keep this thought in mind when going on financial television. Then again, they likely wouldn’t get invited back all that often.