Kass Explains What's Wrong With Stock Market TV Pundits

NEW YORK (Real Money) --

"I don't know."

-- Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn), Fast Times at Ridgemont High

We need more Jeff Spicolis in the investment business -- people who are unsure of themselves and can say: "I don't know!"

Yesterday, I came back from some research meetings and found the S&P 500 up by about 20 handles, the polar opposite of the previous day's 20-handle fall.

I tuned into the business shows for a market recap but was amused by how many self-assured market observers "knew" -- after the fact -- that Wednesday's reversal would occur.

I wish I were that smart. Although I did cover many of my shorts on Tuesday, I had no clue that the market would recover.

This commentary previously appeared in Doug Kass' Daily Diary on Real Money Pro. Click here for complete access to this dynamic, real-time market blog.

Frankly, as I've repeatedly written, the only certainty in investing is the lack of certainty. It's for that reason (and out of respect for my and my investors' capital) that I've been plus or minus "market neutral" for months now. There are simply too many possible adverse economic and market outcomes -- which makes, for me, an unattractive reward-vs.-risk equation.

I see this self-confidence of "after-the-fact" analysis all of the time in the business media, on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

My advice has been constant -- avoid those who are self-confident of view and who provide ready explanations to daily market moves.

Why? Because 1) they probably aren't managing significant amounts of money (and in some cases don't have any assets at risk at all), 2) their observations are almost always "after the fact," 3) they explain the turnaround on variables that are just plain dumb (often simply making stuff up), 4) they're probably trying to sell you something instead of providing value-added investment input, and 5) they never say "I don't know."

The investment world and the media that cover it demand endless opinions that most people have limited information on. I describe this as being 3-miles wide and 1-inch deep. Sometimes the respondents just make answers up. Other times the questions and answers are simply scripted in advance and the rapid-fire responses are mistaken for thoughtful and deep analysis. (Which they're not.)

My pet peeve is the singular question that's routinely asked of business TV's "talking heads" as they parade before the media at 3:45 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. every day (and again in premarket conversations the following morning). They're always asked the same inane question: "Why did the market do what it did today?"

In a market that's without memory from day to day (and that often ends the session based on the last program standing), that's an impossible question to answer. It also underscores the simple-minded attitude of the questioner, who -- instead of asking probing questions -- asks lame, simplistic and standard ones.    

The market's wild and uncorrelated swings so far this year have elicited numerous self-confident (and inane) responses about the causality between news and prices. They're irrelevant and inaccurate because this market has been trendless.

We do see rare expressions of truthfulness, but they're few and far between. The last one I can remember was from my friend Josh "Downtown" Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management, who answered a question on CNBC's "Fast Money" earlier this year with the words: "I don't know."

I guarantee that you won't hear that very often from TV guests, as many believe they wouldn't seem smart enough if they were honest with us. Instead, most simply make up stuff. Knowing the likelihood of the question, they have their talking points all summed up before they appear. Many even underscore their reasons behind a market's daily move with such confidence that even I believe them at times.

I handle lots of questions every day in the comments section of my diary, and I can guarantee you that I'll say "I don't know" if I don't know the answer to something.

Why aren't there more talking heads like Fast Times' Jeff Spicoli, who's brutally honest when he says "I don't know" in response to why he's constantly late to class?

The fact is that snark and made-up opinion far too often envelop the business media in place of facts and figures.

Equally infuriating is the confidence shown in delivery of said snark. Sometimes the reason for this is out of necessity, as media appearances are typically brief. Nevertheless, in a world characterized by an absence of certainty and an interrelated and a complicated market mosaic, too many TV guests attach self-confident reasons to randomness.

In summary, I would characterize a lot of the pabulum in the business media as instantaneous entertainment rather than rigorous analysis.

Of course, there are exceptions. Consider the preparation that Jim "El Capitan" Cramer goes through when he interviews a corporate executive on CNBC's "Mad Money." Another example is CNBC's "Squawk Box" with Joe Kernen, Becky Quick and Andrew Ross Sorkin, which provides a guest host with one to three hours to do a deeper dive into analysis. Or Bloomberg TV's "Market Surveillance," where Tom Keene shares the spotlight with an interviewee for almost a half an hour, digging into the analysis that forms the foundation of the guest's views.

The truth is that the future is often not predictable, and not every move in the markets is explainable -- although far too many observers attach a reason for every wiggle and move.

To some, the projection of confidence is seen as a validation of an intense and rigorous decision-making process. But increasingly, many are fooled by abbreviated, simplistic explanations and conclusions -- even though more often than not, the snark is shown to be wrong in short order.

In a rising market that has many people feeling uber-smart, there are too many Good Will Huntings (i.e., geniuses) and not enough Jeff Spicolis who'll say "I don't know."

Why was the market down on Tuesday, up on Wednesday and down in premarket trading today?

Honest answer: I don't know.

Editor's Note: This article was published at 12:00 p.m. EDT on Real Money on May 28.

Doug Kass is the president of Seabreeze Partners Management Inc. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security.

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