The above still, from a now famous Wendy’s commercial of the 1980s, will date me. But the punch line is just too good.

We look at newspapers and news organization for useful information, possibly garnished with appropriate color and educational impact. That is at least in concept.

Experienced journalist friends tell me that the public actually seeks a less defined product, with a mixture of news and “entertainment”. The New York Times, the very same of “All the news that’s fit to print” fame, gave us a recent example of “entertainment”, I think (you can find the November 24th article here). The thrust of the story is the performance delivered over the past five years by hedge-fund manager Mark Spitznagel, of Universa Investments. The performance is impressive because the strategy followed by the manager was to position client portfolios to benefit from a fall in the stock market – and the stock market in the last five years did anything but fall, save for a few hiccups.

So how did Mr. Spitznagel do it? We don’t really know. We are told that the strategy employed “… allows you to be long, but it gets you in position to be short when it’s all over.” In essence, everybody’s dream-strategy come true. There is mention of unspecified insurance policies against falling markets, and snippets of the strategy’s performance year-to-date (+10%) and in 2013 (+30%) – good numbers indeed, especially including the downside “protection” claimed by the manager. There is also this pearl of reporting magic:

“In previous media reports, Mr. Spitznagel seemed content with descriptions that his fund had small losses each year as he wagered against the market. The recent fund materials that contain the positive numbers may be marketing materials aimed at selling a type of financial catastrophe insurance to investors who are getting jittery about the stock markets’ gravity-defying rise.”

“… maybe marketing materials?” “… aimed at selling a type of financial … insurance …?” Which is it? Did or did it not make money, the strategy? Perhaps a clue: all performance figures are “hypothetical”, but audited. Is this a warning the figures could have been all invented, or a reassurance? What does looking at “hypothetical” numbers mean in practice? Is this article informative? Or even entertaining? Who’s on first?

I have nothing against Mr. Spitznagel or his proclaimed fundamental views. In fact I quite agree with them. My objection is with the form in which the writer has presented the story, with little “hard” information, few clarifying elements and a lot of unanswered fundamental questions. I admit to not seeing the point of the exercise, unless this is a way for the writer to thank Mr. Spitznagel for his “hypothetical” hospitality at the nice 200-acre farm in Northport, Michigan, of which we get a glimpse from the picture in the article.

Can anybody see the beef? If not, go for the turkey: Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo Source: Wendy’s Commercial, 1984