It Will Make You a Dumber Investor

It' may be a Minnesota, Lake Wobegon-wanna-be humility thing, but I'm no fan of Twitter, the social networking microblog that lets users send each other 140-character messages on the fly. In an age of epic narcissism, where people already measure their worth by collecting Facebook "friends" and LinkedIn contacts like so many Alf pogs or Beanie Babies, I don't think we really need another avenue for mass navel-gazing. In fact, I think this trend could be harmful to your nest egg.

Here's my major malfunction Over the past few weeks, as Twitter has become for many a must-have doo-dad, I'm detecting some disturbing trends in Twit finance that I think will lead you to make bad investing decisions. It came to a head for me this week when I noticed a SmartMoney article based on the premise that following its favorite dozen economic/market bloggers can help make you "make smarter money moves."

That's an unproven assertion, to put it kindly.

To put it more truthfully, it's absolute garbage.

When more and more quickly isn't better Following Wall Street traders, stock pickers, and up-to-the-second news feeds is already a full-time job for some. Think you can analyze data faster than the trading desks at Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS), or hundreds of hedge funds, who have massive computer systems and special data pipes so they can stay ahead of the competition on the latest micro-movements in the market? No way.

Nor would following SmartMoney's advice to keep tabs on smart macro prognosticators like Roubini and Krugman have helped. Had you paid much attention to recent, rank economic news, you might have missed out on a big market rally that sent consumer-facing stocks like Home Depot (NYSE: HD) and Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) up 30% or more.

The fact is, Twitter can't make you nimbler than anyone else. And even if it could, it would be no guaranteed money maker. Remember, even if you knew everything first, you still wouldn't know which way the markets (or individual stocks) might move after that information. A single example: Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI) recently reported a horrendous Q4, far worse than analysts guessed, yet the stock is up more than 15% since then. Had you known before the release what those numbers were, I'm sure you would have guessed (as I did) that the stock would have dropped like a rock. And despite having better than up-to-the-minute information, you would have been wrong. Had you loaded up on bearish options, you could be nicely toasted by now.

When more and more quickly is worse More information, more quickly, is clearly not better, but it can't hurt, right?

Unfortunately, it can -- big time.

The problem centers on the way your brain relegates decision making to two separate systems (a scenario described in recent books such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan, Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, and Jason Zweig's Your Money and Your Brain.) Briefly put, one part of your brain uses shortcuts, based on emotions and other fleeting stimuli, to come to conclusions quickly, often before you're even aware a decision has been made. The other decision-maker, which operates in a different part of the brain, is slower, more reasoned, and more balanced. Making things worse, decisions involving money (especially random ones, the kind generated by the stock market) are already shown to engage the emotional part of the brain, eliciting responses and behavior similar to addicts looking for a fix.

Alas, just when it matters most, you're most likely to route an important decision to the most fast-acting but ill-informed, brevity-worshipping part of your brain. I think I'll call it your Inner Twit.

And if you think you're too smart or self-aware to fall victim to your Inner Twit, think again. You don't get much of a choice about where to send these decisions.

There is hope The surest way to avoid being tripped up by your Inner Twit is to make no snap investing decisions at all. Sleep on it. Put it on your to-do list for next week. And if you aren't going to act on the worthless, up-to-the-second noise craved by your Inner Twit, it's a safe bet that you can ignore it altogether. That's why I've been advising investors for years to ignore the ridiculous, rotating headlines on Yahoo! Finance, the seizure-inducing ticker-crawls on CNBC, and the frenzied hand-waving on stock message boards.

Twitter is only the latest, and most banal, extension of a culture that has a hard time recognizing the difference between information and knowledge, between timely and useful, between price and value. And make no mistake, your time is valuable. Any time you waste on Twits is time you could be spending on more important things: Read that latest proxy statement, call your spouse and say "hi," or throw a tennis ball for your dog.

One example As co-advisor at Motley Fool Hidden Gems, information overload and a false sense of urgency are two of the biggest challenges I face. Sure, I like to stay up-to-date on what's happening to our holdings, yet I need to remain aware of how my Inner Twit twists the information I receive, and step back and breathe before making decisions. For instance, shortly after I recommended Autoliv (NYSE: ALV) to members, the company announced an equity and debt offering that sent shares plunging. Couple that with a constant stream of news about bankruptcies at big customers like Ford (NYSE: F) and General Motors (NYSE: GM), and it had many people screaming for us to dump it. My Inner Twit was shouting the same thing. The last thing I needed was a greater supply of 140-word snippets about the state of the auto industry. So, I stepped back to think.

A more sober analysis convinced me that this was not a catastrophe. Only a few weeks later, this recommendation is now up 66% for us, nearly 50 percentage points better than the wider market. (Full disclosure: We've got our share of laggards, too.)

Foolish final thought Most often, in investing, the last thing we need is more information. We have a hard enough time handling the flood we've already got. Step away from the Twitter and concentrate on what matters: the price you're paying for a stock, the business fundamentals, stewardship of capital, returns on investment.

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