Mixing Journalism and Salesmanship 

The secret of selling mutual funds is in the packaging.

How is investing like whipping up a batch of lasagna or removing a bunion?

It isn't, of course, except in the inscrutable logic of The Commercial Appeal.

Every Sunday for several years, the newspaper has run a column on mutual funds by Frank A. Jones on the front page of its Money & Business section. Jones is not a reporter for the CA or any news syndicate. He is a financial adviser for Memphis-based Summit Asset Management.

It's a great gig for Jones, whose smiling, grandfatherly visage runs with the column each week. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of financial advisers and firms in Memphis, but only Jones gets a regular column in the only Sunday newspaper in Memphis, with a circulation that dwarfs every other day of the week. It gets good display too. By the time you debone the Sunday paper, there are four news sections. The column takes up roughly a quarter of a page of one of them. An ad that size would cost roughly $4,000 each week, based on published CA ad rates.

I know firsthand how valuable advertising space is. This newspaper depends on it. And for five years, I wrote a column called Memphis Money for its sister publication, Memphis magazine. Every year, at least one financial adviser would call me and suggest, subtly or otherwise, that he supplement or replace my scribbling with some professional expertise for our well-to-do audience. We always said no thanks; there are lots of things we don't know as much about as the experts, but we're reporters and we do our best and that's how it is.

That's generally the philosophy of the CA too. It doesn't let U of M football coaches write a weekly sports column or politicians write weekly political columns or corporate flacks write the business pages or broadcasters write the television column. Reporters do that. Even the Pets column is written by a reporter not a veterinarian.

But for some reason, the CA lumps investing in with collecting stamps and comics, cooking, home decorating, and medical advice. Eat your vegetables, exercise regularly, don't overcook pasta, be careful how you match those bold paint colors, and buy mutual funds. These are the verities of our time. Who could doubt any of them?

I have never met Frank Jones and don't mean to suggest he's done anything wrong in his column. You pays your money and you makes your choice. I have been a faithful reader of the column since the day it began. But there is a fundamental difference between reporters and financial advisers. The reporter's creed is skepticism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. The financial adviser's creed is salesmanship and belief.

Rogue companies are getting the blame for the stock market crash, but it wasn't rogue companies that drove the Dow to 12,000 three years ago. It was the investing public's and the media's willingness to embrace the gospel of mutual funds as if it were no more controversial or dangerous than a casserole recipe or a bunion treatment.

The gospel usually comes in a package of platitudes and "well, duh" advice. Jones' most recent column on paying for college is typical. Plan ahead. Don't panic. Convert stocks to cash when it comes time to pay tuition (as if bursars would take anything else).

Then the pitch comes.

"Progessively shift your allocation from equity funds to stable value assets like bond funds." Stable? Some bond funds -- and we're not talking junk bonds -- have lost 20 percent in a year. The unit asset value goes up or down with fluctuations in interest rates and, sometimes, defaults or the threat of them. A bond fund, unlike an individual bond, never matures, so your gain or loss depends on when you buy and sell.

"Try to avoid selling equities at depressed prices." Don't we wish we could. So was WorldCom depressed at $40? After all, it had been $60 a few months earlier. Or was it depressed at $20? Or at $2, where a celebrated Wall Street analyst and media star was still recommending it?

But the cornerstone of the mutual-funds industry is this: Over time, stocks will outperform bonds because they always have. The favorite "leave behind" of mutual-fund salesmen is a cardboard "asset calculator" that shows how investments grow over time. In the go-go Nineties, the rate table was rarely lower than 7 percent and sometimes as high as 15 percent a year! The asset calculator never showed what happens to investments when they decline 20 to 30 percent a year, as many leading mutual funds have for the last three years. The Nasdaq composite, once over 5,000, stands at 1,240 this week. An investor who put $10,000 into the Nasdaq in 1999 would have about $2,500 today. If the index rises 7 percent a year every year from now on, the investor will break even in 2024.

Stocks did outperform bonds over the last century, but that was because of the bull market from 1982 to 1999. The comparison doesn't look so good if you pop the bubble and use as your base year 1982, when the Dow was 777, or even 1994, when it was 3,900.

Such are the facts. I apologize for the indecency of printing them. Check the numbers and my math if you like. And remember, always consult a professional financial adviser before investing.

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