How could the TV experts be so wrong? They are well-educated people who call and visit individual companies, and study the balance sheets, new products, and marketing techniques. They work at this full time. You'd think this would give them an advantage. But it doesn't, Professor Malkiel said, because what they learn is information all the analysts have. Malkiel wrote a book about the process called "A Random Walk Down Wall Street." He studied stock movements of the past, and concluded that the advice produced by the in-house experts has little value. "Most of it is just absolute nonsense," he told me, "and most of it is really designed to get people to trade more than they should."
The brokerage firms want you to trade more, because they charge a commission on every trade. But year after year the trading advice that comes out of most of the big brokerage firms is no better at selecting winners than throwing darts at the stock table, or having a monkey throw darts. In fact, the advice is usually worse! People who chart the brokerage firms' recommendations said that over a 15-year period ending in 2005, only 5.72 percent of actively managed mutual funds had beaten the 500 stocks that make up the Standard & Poor's Index. In other words, 94 percent did worse.
None of the big brokerage firms would talk to me about their failure to outperform dart-throwing monkeys, so I interviewed successful money manager Robert Stovall. He used to run research departments at EF Hutton and Dean Witter Reynolds, and he told me just when the experts are useful.
"Everybody has a boss," he said. "Professionals won't buy Coca-Cola or some other stock unless they have reports in the file produced by well-known analysts so if something goes wrong with the stock they buy, they can show their boss, 'Hey, I've got a big file on this stock. All these analysts said it was a good one. Something went wrong.'"
So go ahead. Follow an expert. Then, when something goes wrong, you can blame him.
But if it's your money at stake, you'll probably do better with an index fund -- or a monkey.
Bananas are cheaper than brokerage fees.