Impending Economic Meltdown, or Overhyped Financial Media Circus?

As longtime readers will know, I am not a fan of most forms of financial media — the majority of the sector has been bastardized into sensationalist journalism at its very worst. At its core this is driven by the motivation to profit off viewers’ attention utterly dwarfing what should be by far the primary professional and personal responsibility of financial commentators: to inform. Which should be done by providing information that is as accurate and in-depth as possible, giving actionable advice which is in the clear best interests of their viewers, and drawing a clear distinction between facts, educated speculation, and pure conjecture.

Unfortunately, the end result of this near-complete degradation of integrity is that most financial media has devolved into something akin to sports coverage. Just as you can tune into ESPN and watch commentators break down every little play on the field, so too can you tune into financial pundits on a variety of platforms who break down every little move in the markets. Both would like to convince you that they know exactly what happened in the past and why, and also can convincingly tease out what will happen in the future. The material impact to somebody listening to each respective commentator couldn’t be more lopsided; the outcome of a sports game versus one’s life savings.

It’s primarily entertainment, meant to keep peoples’ eyeballs on the screen (read: generate ad revenue). 24/7 media coverage is completely unnecessary for financial news, as the majority of daily events in financial markets can be digested with a handful of numbers. This needs to be padded with a lot of filler to stretch it into hours of video content or dozens of articles streaming out of the same outlet per day. The public’s interaction with actual economists and financial experts in this system is always controlled through the “official mediators,” which for the most part consists of journalists who just happen to speak or write about finance.

Sometimes we get a sentence or three from actual economists, but the main purpose of this is to build authority on behalf of the uncredentialed journalist who then uses their own shallow understanding of the topic to spew several paragraphs of tangential, overly simplified nonsense. These financial media mouthpieces are never required to share their own personal finances when giving advice, to show their own portfolio performance when advising on investments, or forced to have their claims held to any real argumentative rigor. It’s a walled garden where detractors on the outside can only occasionally get through a muffled shout. The mainstream financial media has been very careful not to give a soapbox to anybody who will tell their viewers just how little attention that they should be paying to these platforms.

So it follows that those who find their way to several branching schools of thought centered on buy-and-hold index fund investing often choose to ignore financial media altogether. This of course started with Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard and inventor of the index fund. In The Little Book of Common Sense Investing, Bogle writes, “My advice to investors is to ignore the short-term noise of the emotions reflected in our financial markets and focus on the productive long-term economics of our corporate businesses.”

Fans of Bogle and followers of his investment philosophy are known as Bogleheads, who collectively boiled this quote down into a simple mantra to “ignore the noise.” The Bogleheads group was informally established in 1998 when Morningstar created the Vanguard Diehards Forum, and the group later migrated to bogleheads.org. While the Bogleheads mostly believe in a traditional, conservative retirement, their general investing philosophy of buying and holding low cost index funds would form the core of the FIRE movement’s investment advice.

These buy-and-hold investors are sufficiently convinced that attempting to actively trade in the stock market has historically led to underperformance even by the vast majority of fund manager “professionals,” and furthermore understand that index fund investors mathematically must achieve above-average returns compared to the average investor. Armed with this knowledge, game theory dictates that the rational investor should never attempt to time the market.

Ignoring financial media serves two purposes — avoiding whatever temptations to act on one’s portfolio that this constant stream of emotional news may impart, and also simply freeing up one’s time from an activity that amounts to low-value entertainment at best. So they don’t see headlines like today’s selection:

  • “Dow craters 875 points, S&P closes in bear market amid rate hike jitters”
  • “Bitcoin drops as much as 17%, falling below $23,000 as $200 billion wiped off crypto market over the weekend”
  • “Tightening of financial conditions accelerates, recession fears grow as May CPI report becomes multi-day trading event”

Forbes, Fortune, CNBC, Fox Business, and that whole cabal of mainstream media outlets are guilty of constantly churning out low-value content like that on a daily basis. You can find even worse stuff on YouTube cranked out by some channels at breakneck speed, complete with a thumbnail of a chart overlaid with the creator’s face, his mouth more often than not agape in surprise.

It’s fairly low effort to recycle these silly templates which connect market movements to other events of the day and fill several paragraphs with similar speculative conclusions. Comparatively, writing an article about how 30 year mortgage rates surged to 6.18% (which happened today but zero major outlets have reported on) may impact the housing market likely requires the author to have at least a basic understanding of economics, making it a harder topic for some random journalist to convincingly stumble through.

Assume for a second that these commentators were mostly accurate at sussing out the reason for why the market moved the way it did on any given day, which is a dubious assumption for many of them. That event has already happened, and market participants have likely priced in most of the expected impact. If you decide to sell out of your investments because of today’s negative news, or a few weeks of cumulative negative news, you’re trading off old information.

Historical performance of active traders indicates that it’s unlikely that the retail trader at home in their pajamas sells out before the big crash, buying back in at a lower price to protect their wealth and multiply their number of shares. Such a trader is far more likely to be shaken out regularly at small dips which appear to precede a large negative event, which then resolves as the market continues climbing, leaving them on the sidelines. If one of these market timers does get a bite, they will of course rush to brag about how they sold out when the market was 20% higher, conveniently leaving out the fact that due to all of their failed trades over the past decade, their portfolio is still smaller than if they had just bought and held.

That’s not to say that one should abstain from all financial media (though you could after learning the basics and still do just as well), and if I honestly thought that I might as well just shut this blog down right now. Rather, if one has an interest in personal finance, investing, and economics they should curate their attention towards high quality sources that have proven themselves to be particularly interesting, valuable, or insightful.

It’s wise to be cautious right now. A measured balance between the fearful who are selling all of their investments, and the greedy who may have prematurely dumped their entire emergency fund into the market to “buy stocks on sale.” Take the time to check your actual spending against your budget. Make small tweaks if you feel they are prudent for peace of mind and risk mitigation, like choosing to increase the size of your emergency fund from six to twelve months. Delay large purchases like a car or home if possible until it’s more clear how your own financial situation will play out if this does continue to worsen.

A year from now we will be anywhere along the spectrum from this dip recovering while most people forget about it and it’s referred to in financial circles as the “Quantitative Tightening Panic,” to a full blown recession with major markets declining double digit percentages. The speculative human in me thinks that the latter is more likely, but as always the rational move is simply to stay the course with my buy-and-hold investment strategy.

Questions? Additional thoughts? Leave a comment below!