What can investors learn from the unmasking of Jim Cramer?
On the surface, he has the right credentials. He was a successful hedge fund manager, who made a fortune on Wall Street, although it now appears that some of his gains were obtained through the use of highly questionable practices. His hyperkinetic personality and over-the-top antics contributed to the perception he must really know how to pick stock winners.
CNBC -- which truly has no shame -- does its best to perpetuate his cult personality. Its ads for the aptly titled Mad Money show declare, "In Cramer We Trust." The sonorant voice of its announcer tells us that, in these troubled times, Cramer in someone you can rely on.
Investors took the bait. Over 600,000 regularly tuned into his show, mesmerized by his antics, hoping to be enlightened by his confident recommendations for stocks to buy "now."
As Jon Stewart so brilliantly pointed out, it was all an elaborate con.
For most investors, there is no justification for holding any individual stock. The expected return of any stock is the same as the expected return of an index of stocks of comparable risk. By holding one stock rather than the index, you double the risk without increasing the expected return. The Mad Money show is based on an entirely false premise which caused untold harm to many investors.
It's even worse.
There's no data that anyone has the ability to consistently pick stock winners over the long term. The majority of mutual funds under perform their benchmarks in any one year, and over 95 percent of them do so over a ten year period. These funds are run by the best and brightest fund managers in the country. They don't have time to wear funny hats or yell "boo-ya." They have huge staffs to assist them. Their performance record is dismal.
Mad Money is great for Cramer's ego and for CNBC's ratings. He gets to rant and rave and reel off statistics justifying his views. None of this obscures the undeniable fact that, as Jon Stewart so aptly noted, he is selling "snake oil as vitamin tonic" in a way that was "disingenuous at best and criminal at worse."
No one has the magic bullet. Not Bernie Madoff. Not Allen Stanford.
And certainly not Jim Cramer.
Dan Solin is the author of The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read and The Smartest 401(k) Book You'll Ever Read. His new book, The Smartest Retirement Book You'll Ever Read, will be published in the fall, 2009. Visit his website at Smartestinvestmentbook.com.