Things often aren't as simple as they seem. Like disclosure.
I remember many years ago when we debuted our robust Fool Disclosure Policy. It meant that readers could learn at the ends of articles whether we writers were invested in any stocks we mentioned. Therefore, anyone who wondered about possible conflicts of interest could see the writer's holdings.
For example, in my article on acquisitions gone awry, you'll see that I owned a number of the stocks I talked about, including Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) and Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B). You'll also find out which of the stocks mentioned happen to be recommendations of one or more of our newsletters.
That does convey some possibly useful information. But readers may also draw too much meaning from it. For example, I'm not equally bullish on Time Warner and Berkshire Hathaway. My stake in one is more than 30 times greater than the other. One has earned a five-star rating (out of five) from our Motley Fool CAPS community, while the other sports just two stars. One is grounded in many industries in which I have long-term faith, including insurance, home-building, and furniture, while the other is focusing on more rapidly-changing industries, such as media and entertainment.
Here are some other things you might not have thought of: Although I'm restricted for trading in shares I talk about, I may be planning to buy much more of one of my holdings in the near future, while planning to sell another. I may own some shares of a company I don't even believe in, having inherited them and not yet sold them. I may be very bullish about a company's future, but think its stock has gotten ahead of itself. Some of my holdings may turn out to be big blunders.
Never assume that just because a Fool writer owns a stock, you should buy it.
Betting on mad money
The disclosures of big investing names such as Jim Cramer can also be interesting, but they don't tell you enough, either. Cramer discloses regularly. In a recent "Mad Money" segment, for example, he waxed bullish on McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) and Visa (NYSE: V), saying "I'm a buyer of McDonald's" and "I want to pull the trigger on Monday and buy Visa." But per his disclosure, he already owned some Visa, and no McDonald's. Of course, perhaps he just holds 20 shares of Visa, and plans to buy McDonald's shortly.
Cramer has also promoted Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) and Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG), saying, "I want you to buy more Coke" and "I think [Chipotle] is a great buy," while not owning either at the time. To some degree, it's a no-win situation with his disclosures. If he owns what he's talking up, you could accuse him of hyping it to push the price higher. If he doesn't own them, then he's not showing as much confidence as you might want, given his glowing words.
The recent credit crisis
Disclosure is also not enough when it comes to reforming our nation's credit ways. I recently read some commentary on the matter by CardHub.com CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou, who previously worked at Capital One Financial (NYSE: COF). He claimed that the administration's proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) along with greater disclosure to consumers about the terms of financial products they look into and buy will not be enough to prevent future mistakes. He blamed the housing bubble mainly on "extensive speculation on the parts of both lenders and borrowers, and not insufficient disclosure."
He has a point, but I think that disclosure still plays an important part. Yes, there was too much speculation going on, as people assumed that home prices would keep rising. But that's still inextricably tied, to some degree, to disclosure. Many people didn't quite understand the terms of the risky extreme mortgages they were taking on. Many people still don't appreciate how their credit card debt can spiral if not paid down aggressively. The more information consumers have, the better decisions they can make. Disclosure isn't a total solution -- some will still take ill-advised risks -- but it's a help.
Think, too, of the world of financial advisors. Some have a conflict of interest, earning commissions if they sell you a financial product. Yes, full disclosure will give you some useful information and context. But it's also true that some advisors may still be recommending the right investment for you, even if they get a reward for doing so.
© 2009 UCLICK, L.L.C.