“My job is to write the exact same thing between 50 and 100 times a year in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will ever think I am repeating myself.”
This eye-catching quote was written by the Wall Street Journal’s Loeb award-winning Personal Finance columnist, Jason Zweig.
“That’s because good advice rarely changes, while markets change constantly. The temptation to pander is almost irresistible. And while people need good advice, what they want is advice that sounds good.
The advice that sounds the best in the short run is always the most dangerous in the long run. Everyone wants the secret, the key, the roadmap to the primrose path that leads to El Dorado: the magical low-risk, high-return investment that can double your money in no time. Everyone wants to chase the returns of whatever has been hottest and to shun whatever has gone cold. Most financial journalism, like most of Wall Street itself, is dedicated to a basic principle of marketing: When the ducks quack, feed ‘em.”
These observations were refreshingly honest and uncomfortably true.
There is little depth to the topics of Personal Finance. The majority of perceived nuance is contrived. The recipe for success is the patient and consistent application of a small handful of simple rules.
Boring, but proven.
For much of my lifetime, Michael Pascoe was a finance journalist and business editor. A familiar face who discussed the weighty financial matters of the day in a reassuringly understandable manner.
Earlier this year he penned a summary of his career that was remarkably consistent with Zweig.
“I have a confession to make: For a quarter of a century it was my job to provide daily financial market reports of one kind or another. Like all other daily financial markets reports, they were mostly rubbish.
Most of those market reports were and are ‘noise’ – they don’t add up to much at all. Just like the first half of the nightly television weather report, there’s perhaps a passing interest in knowing what the temperature had been that day, but so what?
For traders, by the time the media reports market movements, they are too late to matter.
For investors, the unit of time – a day – is too short to matter.
So I was paid for doing stuff that mostly didn’t matter.
The trouble with repeatedly saying ‘keep perspective’ is that it gets boring. People want to hear or read something different.
What’s more frustrating is that a scary story finds it easier to do repeat business than a story about keeping perspective.”
Mind the gap
For reasons I have never entirely understood, there has long been a scarcity of good personal finance journalism in the United Kingdom.
Australians will talk endlessly about their superannuation, if given even the slightest opportunity.
Americans wax lyrical about their 401k plans and employer matches.
Yet in Britain, the only Personal Finance topics widely discussed in the mainstream are mortgage refinancing and the evils of payday lending.
Those who mention pensions or SIPPs are viewed much the same way as those nerdy high school kids who played Dungeons and Dragons rather than football at lunch time.
Whether that is correlation or causation, I’m not qualified to comment. Either way, that has created a content gap in the marketplace, which the league of pseudonymous authors who sporadically write at Monevator partially fill.
Monevator’s “The Investor” also echoed the conflict between repeating those simple core lessons, and clamouring for attention in an ever noisier world.
“Index fund-focused blogs like us are typically trying to find new ways to say the same thing (as Jack Bogle quipped about himself). It’s just not as exciting as blogging about Facebook shares crashing or small cap story stocks.
But a strategy that says ‘set your portfolio and forget about it’ isn’t the best way to keep ’em coming back for more”
The entertainment business
There we have three leading voices in their respective locales, who have led impressive writing careers endlessly repeating themselves. Each has a demonstrable talent for coming up with new variants of those same old stories, citing topical examples to bring relevance to new readers.
There is a juggling act required. Balancing the boring yet healthy choices against the instant gratification of infinitely forgettable junk food.
Broccoli versus burgers.
Competition for scarce attention spans is fierce.
News and current affairs are more entertaining than informative. Political coverage as shallow as the latest goings on in the Kardashian household. City AM is full of business gossip and innuendo about the Masters of the Universe, OK magazine in suits.
Set against that background, these well-intentioned writers attempt to educate their audience. To teach that handful of timeless rules and proven principles which actually lead to success if followed.
Personal Finance bloggers face a similar challenge.
To begin with, they write about new things that are interesting to the author.
Exploring new ideas.
Grasping new concepts.
Consolidating newly acquired knowledge and wisdom.
At some point, every Personal Finance writer gets a sense of déjà vu.
They realise their body of work has already covered a given topic.
Then all the topics.
Repetition sets in.
Some choose to focus on those few timeless lessons that actually do work.
Others continue writing variants on a theme, using topical examples and pop culture references to bring relevance and relatability to those timeless lessons.
Many choose to give up, move on, or drift away. Their curiosity exhausted, interest levels exceeded, or thirst for knowledge quenched.
They’ve outgrown the niche, and seek fresh adventures elsewhere.
Roadmap of the journey
The Investor described the maturity curve of a typical reader over the course of their journey.
“Readers invariably find Monevator, read a lot and comment a little, and then vanish.”
Those readers arrive with questions, learn all they can from a given authority, and then move on with their lives. This is as it should be, the natural order of things.
Some might even apply that knowledge, enriching their minds and their wallets in the process.
Repetition: long may it continue
New readers arrive all the time, closer to the beginning than the end of the financial journey. While the message remains the same, human nature is to seek out the latest shiny content in preference to the author’s old stuff or their greatest hits.
Particularly on blogs. Especially those that are poorly organised and difficult to search in a meaningful way.
This was one of those annoying epiphanies that are blatantly obvious in hindsight!
In my case, it struck me while I was helping explain the basics of direct debits, dividends, and pensions to a recent widow.
Her husband had taken care of the money stuff, by her own admission she “had the brains, but not the interest” when it came to personal finance. Now on her own, she faced a steep learning curve.
Seeing the confusing and often murky world of financial advice through her eyes was both fascinating and scary. It is easy to take our own levels of experience and understanding for granted, but there will always be a newcomer about to commence their own financial journey.
To these folks, each of those proven simple rules is a revelation, and if explained in a way that speaks to the recipient can potentially change their lives. I suspect that is why Zweig, Pascoe and the Monevator gang all keep on repeating themselves.
Long may they continue.
- Rockstar Finance (2019), ‘Blog cemetery‘
- Pascoe, M. (2019), ‘Confessions of a finance journalist: Most of what you hear is noise’, The New Daily
- “The Investor” (2019), ‘Weekend reading: Twilight of the blogs’, Monevator
- UCLA Anderson School of Management (2019), ‘Gerald Loeb Awards historical winners list‘
- Zweig, J. (2013) ‘Saving investors from themselves‘