Fake Business News

I think I first heard that we were entering the “Information Age” in the 1990s. The internet was just coming on-line. It promised that every book ever written would be available without a trip to the library. It promised that I could view every painting in every museum in the world without ever getting on an airplane.

In just two decades we have become inundated with information that is simply false. I am not talking about political “fake news” or “fake facts” spewed by politicians. No one in their right mind expects politicians to be truthful.

The internet has become a prime source of financial information and anyone can add to the growing library, even if they have no idea what they are talking about.  The world is full of information about finance that is pure fantasy.

For a great many years I got my business news daily from the Wall Street Journal. When I moved to San Francisco in the1980’s I started reading the San Jose Mercury News because it had the best tech reporters around.

I admit that I am somewhat of an information junkie especially as it regards business, the economy and the financial markets.  I currently watch the national news on PBS or CNN. I have been known to watch Bloomberg TV especially the shows focused on European and Asian markets. I read scientific and tech journals and law review articles. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I want to keep up with what is going on in finance, law and technology.

That is one of the reasons that I like LinkedIn.  I have connected with people all over the world and through them I get articles about many things that are going on in the global marketplace that I would not otherwise read.  But not every one of those articles has any value at all.

Some of the articles are written by people who call themselves strategists, influencers, gurus, visionaries, evangelists and futurists.  Many seem to be self-appointed experts without credentials or experience.  Some just regurgitate stupidity because they cannot discern good information from bad information or ask intelligent questions about what they are reading.

Is it unfair to expect that someone who holds themselves out as an expert in finance have an MBA or have worked in finance?  Is it unfair to expect someone commenting on a fairly complex legal issue to have graduated from law school?

This seems to have carried over to the mainstream financial press. There are “experts” contributing columns to Forbes and Fortune who could not find their way out of a paper bag. They lack context, perspective and expertise.  So much is the need for content that quality has gone out the window.  The desire for “views” and “likes” is more important than the quality of thought that goes into the writing.

This has also migrated over to the conference circuit. When I go to a conference, I want to learn something valuable from people who know what they are talking about. I want to hear speakers who have been in the trenches; those who have walked the walk.

Many conferences refuse to pay for the best speakers opting instead for those who will speak for free and pay their own way in exchange for “exposure”.  Some conferences charge speakers to appear. This eliminates many of the best academics and usually people from big companies who do not need the exposure and certainly are not going to pay for it.

There has always been some amount of fake news about some businesses. Tobacco companies said that smoking did not cause cancer; coal and oil companies deny global warming.  You would expect a salesperson or CEO to say that their company’s product is the best or their service the fastest and that is not troubling. But there were always rules.

For any company with investors the dissemination of financial information is regulated. Every press release and often every advertisement is usually vetted by  the company’s lawyers to assure accuracy and compliance.

When a public company published financial information it was presumed that the information was accurate. There would be auditors looking over managements’ shoulders in any event.  There are quarterly phone calls with analysts who ask questions. If management gets a reputation for being too optimistic on a recurring basis, people know about it and begin to discount what they are saying.

If you worked for any large company, when you made a statement in public you always represented that company. You were expected to maintain a professional demeanor, to go out of your way not be controversial or say something that might make the company look bad.  You were always expected not say something that was stupid or inaccurate. That is still true in many cases but it is far from universal and it seems to be less and less true as time goes on.

This becomes a serious problem when a small company is trying to obtain funding from investors.  Investors are entitled to a full and fair disclosure of the actual facts.  Most of the Wall Street firms take care to verify the facts that they are passing on to investors but this has become a significant problem on the fringes of finance like Crowdfunding and investors are getting ripped off every day.

I speak with people every week who want to raise funds for their business. I appreciate that many of the people who contact me have done some research first. But just because you heard something at a Ted Talk or read an article in Inc. does not make it real.

One of the core premises in the Crowdfunding market is that the investors can fend for themselves or that the crowd will be able to separate good investments from bad ones. That is simply not true, has never been true and is unlikely to become true.  The vast majority of investors have no idea what questions to ask and if they do, they have no ability to verify whether the answers they get from the company are true.

This “fake” news often shows up in the company’s sales projections. Projections in an offering are always rosy but the projections need to have some basis in fact. I have asked people who are Crowdfunding their offering how they arrived at their sales projections and many have no idea if their product is priced correctly or what their competition is offering.

I try to be pretty careful about what I write on this blog. I limit my articles to areas which I know fairly well, finance, law, investments and economics. I do a fair amount of research for any article. When I write articles for this blog, all of which are read over by a colleague before I publish them, I always ask myself “would I be willing to say that to a judge?”

I have been taught to be a critical thinker. I think that the best lawyers are. I was taught to question facts and assumptions. As a lawyer I try to understand the underlying transaction and the expectations of the parties whether I am writing the paperwork or litigating over someone else’s.  It carries over to this blog and other articles that I write.

When I started this blog I said that I was constantly amazed by the vast amount of patently foolish investment advice in the marketplace and promised to call out financial foolishness whenever I see it.  I never expected that so much of that false information would present itself or that so many people would accept that information without question.

So far I used the blog to point out the obvious facts that 1) robo-investment advisors, in part because they are looking backwards not forwards, are virtually useless; 2) investing in a cannabis related company has the extra risk of investing in a business that is patently illegal; 3) the Crowdfunding industry needs to act like responsible intermediaries because the offerings are either bad investments or fraudulent and 4) crypto-currency has limited utility as a method of finance in part because it is a very expensive way to raise money.

You should certainly be aware that there are a great many articles out there that see the world very differently on each of these subjects. The more time I spend reading what is out there, the more I know that I have my work cut out for me.  The simple truth is that markets need accurate information in order to operate efficiently.

 

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