There was a popular book in 1973 – A Random Walk Down Wall Street. (by Burton Malkiel, now in its 9th edition, 2007) – that pooh-pooh’ed the idea that one investor’s stock picks could always be better than another investor’s stock picks. The punch line is that you could randomly throw darts at the Wall Street Journal financial pages and do just as well as anyone else investing in the stock market. I first read it in 1980, while taking Investment 101 in business school at night and editing economic research documents for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco during the day. I had a very memorable argument with John P. Judd, then senior research economist and more recently special advisor to the Bank president and CEO Janet Yellen.
John thought the Wall Street brokers were crazy for thinking they could make more than average returns on investment. I thought the Federal Reserve was crazy for thinking they could control the money supply. John was already a PhD economist; I was still working on my Bachelor degree in business administration.
Twenty years later I also have a PhD in economics, but there are still two camps pulling in different directions in their dangerous tug-of-war on the economy. There are the double-dip pessimists led by Yale Economist Bob Shiller and most recently discouraged by Paul Ferrell of MarketWatch. And there are the “Mad Money” optimists who believe that Jim Cramer will tell them everything they need to know to get and stay rich, while Ben Bernanke consoles them with sound bites like “increased optimism among consumers … should aid the recovery.”
At the heart of the problem is the same, original argument I had with John Judd – “is there a way to beat the averages” – except that this time around Wall Street is in bed with the Federal Reserve. You can no longer tell the crazies apart.
Which brings me back to the Random Walk. If Wall Street has their way, they will inflate the market just enough to induce you to put your money back in. Don’t forget the Weenie Roast of 2008. If the government – either Congress or Treasury or the Federal Reserve – has their way, they will let it crash again, too. Don’t forget that it was only Wall Street that got bailed out the last time. I think the chances are 50-50 either way.