When Entertainment Passes for Investment Advice

The battle between Peter Schiff and Michael Shedlock is decent entertainment, provided you don't follow their investment advice.
Bubble vision.          

In the world of financial media, it can be hard to separate news and analysis from entertainment. Ever since the crisis, financial entertainment seems to have shifted from hot stock picks to big macro theories. One advantage of spouting macro theories instead of stock picks is that it can take years for you to be proven wrong. Another is that you get to mix politics with economics, which is good for grabbing attention and building up a loyal following.

The undisputed king of macro-tainment is Peter Schiff. Schiff has managed to combine the most effective form of political entertainment -- right-wing talk radio -- with the most popular and addictive flavor of macro-tainment, Austrian economics. Schiff was elevated to dizzying heights of popularity after 2007, when one of his many, many, many, many bubble calls proved to be right. Since then it has seemed like Schiff is everywhere -- I’ve seen his face on three banner ads in three different magazines just this morning.

But it’s tough to be the king, because ambitious dukes and barons are always angling for a shot at your job. For the last several years, Schiff has been dogged by a determined and prolific critic -- finance blogger Michael “Mish” Shedlock.

In a way, Shedlock seems like he should be a natural ally of Schiff, or even a fan. Both avow that they are students of the “Austrian school.” Schiff’s asset-management company is called Euro Pacific Capital, while Shedlock’s is called Sitka Pacific Capital Management. Even their last names go well together -- “Shedlock & Schiff” would be an incredibly catchy title for a show. But in fact, the former has been criticizing the latter since 2007.

The big Shedlock-Schiff dust-up came in 2009, when Shedlock released an epic post titled simply: “Peter Schiff was Wrong.” Here is Shedlock:

I have talked with many who claim they have invested with Schiff and are down anywhere from 40% to 70% in 2008. There are many other such claims on the internet. They are entirely believable for the simple reason Schiff's investment thesis was flat out wrong...

(L)et's discuss the main points of Schiff's thesis...

· US Equity Markets Will Crash.

· US Dollar Will Go To Zero (Hyperinflation).

· Decoupling (The rest of the world would be immune to a US slowdown).

· Buy foreign equities and commodities and hold them with no exit strategy...

[Schiff's] investment thesis centered on shorting the dollar in a hyperinflation bet, and buying foreign equities rather than shorting US equities...What happened in 2008 was that foreign equities sold off much harder than US equities, and a strengthening US dollar compounded the situation.

In other words, Schiff failed where it matters most: Peter Schiff did not protect his client's assets.

Shedlock goes on to back up his criticism with a number of Schiff quotes predicting a dollar crash, hyperinflation and other things that never happened. For each prediction, he includes charts showing just how wrong Schiff turned out to be. If you want to see the dangers of investing based on macro-tainment, Shedlock’s post is Exhibit A.

Now, in the world of macro-tainment-cum-asset-management, them's fightin’ words, to say the least. It took a few years, but in 2012 Schiff fired back with a post entitled “Mish Shedlock Exposed.” Here is Schiff:

Despite [Shedlock's] criticism of my performance, his own performance is undeniably horrible over the long term. Just about the worst investment decision one could have made was to send money to Shedlock's firm in January 2009. Since then, global stock markets and foreign currencies have rebounded sharply and Shedlock's clients have completely missed the gains...

Shedlock has been warning about the specter of deflation for years, and his strategies are apparently designed to guard against this outcome. However, like Linus sitting in that pumpkin patch, it's been eight years, and the Great Pumpkin has yet to appear...

More significantly, if investors really feared deflation and simply bought U.S. Treasuries instead of giving their money to Shedlock, they would also have been much better off. Apparently Shedlock has succeeded in developing an investment strategy that underperforms under both inflation and deflation! So, when it comes to the inflation/deflation debate, no matter which camp wins, Shedlock's clients still lose.

Schiff’s post includes a list of spreadsheets and calculations comparing Schiffian strategies with Shedlockian, and purporting to show the former crushing the latter.

Unfortunately, attempts to get the two in the same room for a debate have not yet been successful.

It might seem strange that these two are fighting, since both profess to be followers of Austrian economics. And indeed, as observers of the debate such as currency trader and blogger Simit Patel have noted, the two do agree on a number of basic ideas:

It's crucial to note that Schiff and Shedlock agree on quite a bit. Such as:

· Gold will rally

· US stocks will decline

· Japanese yen will appreciate

Every one of these predictions has turned out to be the exact opposite of what has happened in the last couple of years. Austrianism makes for great political tub-thumping and fun end-of-the-world scenarios, but if you forget that it’s fundamentally a form of entertainment, your portfolio could be in big trouble.

In fact, my own basic message is something I’ve said before: Macro-tainment contains no actionable information. If you’re one of the few people who can listen to radio shows and read blog rants about poorly defined, wordy macro theories without your investment strategy being influenced by it, then by all means, grab some popcorn, open up Zero Hedge, turn on Peter Schiff's show. But for most of us, it’s crucial to recognize that macroeconomics is something that even the world’s smartest economists still don’t understand very well, and that political ideology and economic reality don’t mix.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.