Yesterday saw an odd juxtaposition. In Washington, the Senate conducted hearings into allegations of misconduct inside the White House, with potentially serious implications. Meanwhile, on Wall Street, no one seemed to mind very much. In fact, the market hit a new all-time high on Thursday afternoon.
This raises a question: How much attention should we really pay to the market on a daily basis? Does the market “know” any more than any one individual knows? And, when the market moves, should we believe that it is actually “telling” us anything meaningful? When it comes to the stock market, is there any validity to the notion of “the wisdom of crowds”?
In short, I would argue no. I do not believe that the market has any collective wisdom — and I don’t believe the media knows more either. For that reason, I recommend that you tune out most of the chatter you hear about the market’s daily movements.
To understand why, let’s go to the most granular level and ask what it would take for an investor to make a good call on an individual stock. I see at least four hoops to jump through:
First, the investor would need reliable information: While public companies do issue financial results four times a year, unfortunately those results are all backward-looking. As a result, companies disclose what has happened, but they won’t tell you what will happen — assuming that they themselves even know.
Second, the investor would need complete information: Even if you knew everything that a company CEO knew, you would also need reliable information on every one of the company’s customers, competitors and suppliers.
Third, the investor would need to interpret the information correctly: Even with complete information, it isn’t necessarily easy to draw the correct conclusion. For example, if Toyota reduces its purchases from a supplier, does that mean Toyota’s own sales are slowing, or could it simply mean that Toyota is redirecting its orders to another supplier?
Finally, even with complete and accurately-interpreted information, the investor would need to maintain a sound mind, tuning out friends, colleagues, the media, the barber and anyone else with an opinion on the market. Howard Marks, an investor and keen observer on this topic, makes this point: “People influence each other, and their emotions compound, so that the overall level of panic in the market can be higher than the panic of any participant in isolation…In short, people make each other crazy.”
For any one investor to make a good call on any one stock, as we’ve seen, a lot of stars would have to align. And that’s for just one single person to get it right. Now, recall what statistics tell us: if any one person has a low probability of success, then the probability is infinitesimally small that large groups of people (i.e., the market) might all be correct. That is why I believe that “the market” — which is really just a large group of individuals — really doesn’t “know” anything, and certainly doesn’t know more than any one individual.
To be sure, it is valuable to be aware of the overall level of the market and of current events, but I would caution you against drawing any conclusions from the day-to-day movements of any one stock or of the market overall.
Note: In my opinion, the investor and author Howard Marks has done the very best work on this topic, and I would like to recognize his formative influence on my thinking here. If you are interested in learning more, I high recommend Marks’s January 19, 2016 memo, titled What Does the Market Know?