First, some background: Martin D. Weiss is Chairman of Weiss Ratings, a company which rates financial institutions, and he bills it as the only major ratings company that is free of conflicts of interest. He’s also publisher of THE SAFE MONEY REPORT, a newsletter on how to invest your money safely. It’s a low-cost lead product for more expensive financial advice services.
Chances are good that his mail order promotions for THE SAFE MONEY REPORT have landed in your mailbox. From around the late 1990s to just a few years ago, his lead generation packages were written by top copywriter Clayton Makepeace, and they greatly expanded his newsletter business. Mr. Makepeace knows how to grab your attention and arouse great emotion in you.
Martin Weiss was predicting stock market and economic disasters, including widespread Y2K problems, through much of the last bull market.
I subscribed to THE SAFE MONEY REPORT in late 1998 or early 1999, and was bothered by some advice he gave to buy long term puts on the stock market that expired in December 1999. I reasoned that if the Year 2000 was going to bring widespread disaster, then the logical time to have those puts expire was in January 2000 or later.
So I emailed him, and he or — probably — some staff person wrote back that they were “comfortable” with their recommendation to buy puts expiring in December 1999. Remember, that was BEFORE the stroke of midnight of December 31, 1999 which he — and many others — said would bring disaster to the world.
No explanation, nothing except their “comfort” with that recommendation. So I was ticked off. I think now that he was following a strategy of attempting to profit from the fear of Y2K that people would have before it actually happened — just in case it didn’t. Some people did believe that just the fear of Y2K would make the market crash even before January 1, 2000. If so, that tends to indicate he didn’t really believe that Y2K itself would bring on an economic and stock market collapse. He was counting on pre-Y2K fears making those December 1999 puts profitable.
Still, to my way of thinking, the top mailer of lead generation packages for money management advice should justify his specific recommendations with something more explicit than his “comfort.”
This book is worth reading but it’s good to remember that Weiss has made a lot of money from scaring the bejeezus out of people and then selling them financial protection advice. Although the March 2000 “Tech Wreck” justifies some of his warnings, you should also remember that he’s predicted other disasters. That includes widespread Y2K problems and, following the 1997 Asian currency crisis, that deflation would bring economic problems to the U.S.
You should remember that this book is basically another form of lead generation for his financial ratings services and his newsletter business.
As for this book in particular — it contains a lot of interesting information on how during the late 1990s high tech and telecommunications companies were defrauding investors. He uses a fictional company named UCBS (say it out loud to get the joke) and takes us through its CEO’s meetings with both the consultants and accountants who advised him how to cook the books.
Reading it now, you must keep in mind that he must have written it in 2002 since it was published in 2003. The timing is relevant. Much of the information harps on the same themes as his mail order packages promoting subscriptions to THE SAFE MONEY REPORT.
The opening chapters hits on the theme that people should beware advice from their brokers. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I strongly agree that people should decide for themselves which stocks to buy. Brokers are salespeople and, although I’m sure many do try to help their clients, they’re also under pressure to sell the stocks their firms want them to move. There is a built-in conflict of interest.
Plus, he brings out that large brokerage firms have a conflict of interest built in between their financial banking business and providing reliable financial analysis for their customers. They solicit business from the same corporations their researchers are analysing. If their researchers publish negative recommendations, the companies get angry and take their business elsewhere.
Weiss also goes into some detail about how corporations hid their true earnings by shifting problems to subsidiaries and also misusing pension funds.
I’d heard of some of this in connection with Enron, WorldCom etc, but hadn’t realized how incredibly bad it was. As an accounting major, I can tell you that such manipulations were blatant fraud. I got my accounting degree nearly 30 years ago, and I’m certain that my teachers would be shocked and amazed that any major corporation would try such tricks, and that the big accounting firms would certify their audits.
Accounting firms were caught in a conflict of interest once their consulting businesses became more profitable than their auditing. So their consultants taught corporations how to cook the books, and their auditors went along or had to get out. He documents how all of the Big Five accounting firms overlooked poor accounting practices. They gave clean bills of health to companies that soon afterward went bankrupt.
Through the financial advisor in the book, Weiss advises readers to get out of the stock market if the current trend is down. He also gives names of some companies to absolutely sell now. Of course, by the time your read the book, they or may not still be in financial difficulty.
As for getting out of the market — and for the later advice to invest in negative index funds (they go up when the market goes down — and vice versa!) — you should remember that he wrote this book during the bear market.
You must decide for yourself how much of his advice applies to you and your portfolio right now.
One of my problems with this book is the implicit endorsement of marketing timing. He is saying that with so many companies doing such bad things, and the conflict of interests in Wall Street, and the government unable or unwilling to regulate, that the market is going down.
When you read this . . . maybe it will, but maybe it won’t.
His advice to keep some money in Treasury-only money funds is no doubt good. All money funds are much safer than the stock market, but ordinary money funds would be risky if there is a tremendous economic collapse of the kind Weiss so often predicts.
Weiss’s commentary on the federal budget deficit is interesting. Of course, many people also predict disaster from it, and they have been doing so for at least 40 or 50 years. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into much detail about the coming “Age wave” — how the retirement of baby boomers are going to destroy Social Security and Medicare.
He does describe how a collapse of the bond market would also be a financial disaster for the economy, although people pay a lot less attention to bonds than they do to stocks.
Another chapter goes into the coming crash in real estate. He seems to have greatly underestimated that once people stopped investing in stocks they would start investing in real estate. So we know that the real estate bubble followed the stock market crash. But he makes good points how it’s unhealthy for people to be pulling cash out of their homes. His historical figures on how on average Americans owe a lot more on their homes despite the great rise in valuations does indicate that many people are in danger of losing their homes.
It’s good to know that there are such things as reverse-index market funds, or bear funds, that will go up when the market goes down. The big problem, of course, is that nobody knows when the market will go up or down. You can hedge your stock portfolio by putting some money into such a reverse-index market mutual fund, but to fully hedge your risk, half your investment money would have to go into it. Then your bull and bear money would cancel each other out and you’d stay flat . . . you’d be better off leaving your cash in a money market fund since at least that would pay you some interest.
There’s a chapter on derivatives and how they might bring down the economy, but I wish he’d been more specific. I know in general what derivatives are, and I’m not comfortable knowing that major banks have exposure to risk that’s way over their total capital. But what precisely are these derivatives? What financial transactions are they related to? Are they hedged? Are major banks using them in their financial business or just making trades? And how are they interconnected so that a big loss to one bank could unravel the entire financial system?
After all, a big loss to one player is a major gain to another. Weiss has been warning about the risk of derivatives for years. I’d like to know something more specific.
Weiss then asserts that that once the financial crash he foresees happens (and in this book there’re no ifs, ands or buts about it), the government might respond in one of two ways. Struggle against it, and therefore prolong it. Or let the system crash and wipe out the debts and excesses.
I find it inconceivable that the modern U.S. government would consider the second alternative for more than two seconds. It would be politically incorrect to the Nth degree. If we couldn’t handle such an approach in the early years of the Depression, we sure can’t now, 70 years after FDR’s imposition of so many big government programs.
The biggest weakness of this book is that the section on the way to actually profit from a crash — by buying puts on a market index — is amazingly short and weak. He gives a few pieces of advice, but nobody should attempt to buy puts without a lot more education than you get here. If you didn’t know that you could make bets that the stock market would go down, it’s good for you to learn about that. But learn a lot more than Weiss tells you before you put your money down.
Overall, Weiss does a good job of presenting dangers to the economy from the perspective of when he wrote the book. Although it had to be post-September 11, he doesn’t seem to worry about the threat of further terrorism. I find that puzzling, given that one atomic bomb set off in one major city in America or anywhere else in the world for that matter would be a huge economic disaster. Of course, it’s unpredictable and hence you can’t profit from it.
And he also ignores the threat of the retirement of the baby boomers.
Also, my perspective as an advocate for investing for income makes me add that you could have avoided most of the problems he outlines simply by buying stocks that pay dividends. Those stocks did go down in price during the bear market, but not as much as the high tech and telecommunications stocks which Weiss rightly slams.
Furthermore, companies that pay dividends cannot afford to indulge in the same poor accounting practices that Weiss rightfully condemns. I can’t say that all companies that pay dividends are lily-white honest, but even if they bend some rules to increase earnings, they still must come up with the cash to pay their stock holders dividends. That imposes a form of discipline that the dot com companies of the late 1990s did not have to face.
For investors who buy stocks to collect dividends, lower prices really are just paper losses . . . as long as the dividend checks continue to arrive in the mail.
Plus, while corporate bonds would be certainly be at risk in a real-life crash, government bonds would still pay their coupons. Yes, their principal would go down if interest rates go up. Yes, the bond market could crash. So don’t sell. Collect the interest checks.
If you have a crystal ball and you know exactly when the next stock market is going to happen, then of course you should buy puts on a market index and profit.
The rest of us should invest for income and sit down on our investments for as long as the dividend or interest checks don’t bounce.
Book review by Richard Stooker