Al quits his day job to tow rich guys with broken down Beamers out of the desert. What the heck, the hardest thing he's got to do is name that island pictured on his sun visor. Holly "stays conservative" blares another discount brokerage ad on page six of my
New York Times
magazine. Sure enough, there's her "conservative" portfolio, including these two bedrock gems:
Whole Foods Market
. Conservative to the max, I guess. Howard "makes a move," says the copy on the adjacent ad, and sure enough Howard, a gentleman who admits to being too old to dabble in Internet mania, just picked up a "young communication company related to the Internet" that was rated a strong buy in
Analyst Center. Phew, glad he researched that one to death before plunging.
Whoa, what will these marketers think of next? How about pre-schoolers buying
on margin from their
in class? Got to encourage that. Or maybe heart surgeons leaving their patients, open chest cavity and all, because they can make a killing by day, in
Look, I am a card-carrying revolutionary of the Internet, loving online trading and low commissions and all of the information that is now available at my fingertips that was once only the province of the Big Boys. I have compared it over and over again to the 1980s revolution around
, where guys like me learned to fix a broken toilet or install a new screen door. We were freed from the expensive house calls of people who couldn't do it any better.
But when it comes to redoing a kitchen or building a house, I know my limitations. I am not an electrician or an architect. I don't know load bearing from locking and loading, and while I can clean a gutter, I am not about to install one. Home Depot doesn't encourage me to do that either. Home Depot encourages me to fix what I can fix and leave the rest to the pros.
That's what I thought our industry was headed to. Those who have the inclination and the time can really play with the big boys. Others can get some pro help maybe at cheaper prices than before and be more informed clients.
But when I see portfolios I would think represent rank speculation labeled as "conservative," and when I read about discount houses rating young communications companies "strong buys" backed by possibly questionable research, and when I hear that someone can retire because he'd perused the best discount broker list in
, I just want to scream. We don't want to encourage people to build that house that they can't or start fooling around with the circuit box when they don't know how it works. We don't want to present this game as so easy as to create false expectations of risk. We don't want to presume that the market of the last four years does guarantee future performance despite the agate type disclaimers.
Nothing is worse than false expectations. I ought to know. I am still bearing the scars of sticking my mother-in-law in some Asset Manager thing advertised as "conservative" that turned out to be a repository for billions of Latin bonds that lost billions of U.S. dollars, including $3,000 of them for Grandma. I didn't have the time to research beyond what seemed like a conservative rubric and realize that it wasn't conservative at all. Seventy-seven year old pensioners don't like dropping $3,000 in a few weeks when they thought they were doing something conservative.
Ah, you say, Al's Towing is tongue-in-check. Everyone knows that Holly is fictitious and this isn't a real portfolio. Wrong! Holly's real as the ad copy says. And Al's back towing cars for fun instead of working in a tie and jacket -- presumably because that method of working is a joke compared with trading at home.
I don't know. When the book is written on this era, somehow I am thinking that maybe
won't look so stupid after all for not jumping into the online ad waters (and that's not just me talking my position; I am a big client, and I like the firm.) Maybe we will look back at these ads and think, "heck everybody was in the pool in the end weren't they."
When Holly's plunging in to Peoplesoft and WFMI and Howard's moving in on the young Internet communication companies, I'm taking some money off the table so I can buy them when Holly comes to her senses and Howard does more homework than reading a "strong buy" recommendation.
The game just ain't that easy ladies and gentlemen.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At the time of publication, his fund was long Merrill Lynch, though positions may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column by sending a letter to TheStreet.com.