I had a fascinating lunch, a couple of weeks ago, which lodged in my mind the idea that stock picking, at least when practiced by individuals, is best analyzed as an upper-middle-class hobby rather than as purely profit-focused investing activity. Once you start looking at it that way, suddenly a lot of behavior, which looks irrational under most lights, starts making a lot of sense.
For instance: subscriptions. These things are serious money-makers, whether they’re old-fashioned newsletters, whether they’re Barron’s subscriptions ($149/yr), or whether they’re slightly more high-tech products like the various subscription products at thestreet.com (between $152/yr and $1,040/yr), Minyanville (between $499/yr and $899/yr), or, now, at Seeking Alpha ($2,388/yr).
These prices aren’t always completely transparent (good luck trying to find the Minyanville prices on their website, for instance), but they’re high for a reason: they’re sending the message that the subscriptions are meant to make you money. At the same time, however, if you compare these sums to the sort of money that the upper-middle classes spend on, say, golf, then they don’t look quite so large. A golf habit is unlikely to cost you less than $5,000 a year, and can cost tens of thousands, not including the extra amounts that many people pay to buy real estate on the golf course.
What’s more, the number of golfers in America is significantly larger than the number of stock-pickers. This is a niche market, which means again that prices need to be high: you’re never going to sell millions of subscriptions to anything.
One thing worth noting here: stock picking, even more than golf, is an overwhelmingly male hobby. Put aside all the mathematics about how individual investors consistently underperform the market and pay enormous fees to various financial-service middlemen; all you really need to know is that if something is done only by men, it probably isn’t particularly sensible.
Still, the Seeking Alpha model is an interesting one: they’re basically crowdsourcing their subscription product, by offering their contributors between $100 and $500 per article (or more, if the article gets lots of page views), if they consider the post high-quality enough to qualify for the Seeking Alpha Pro product.
You can do the math: Seeking Alpha says that it wants to feature five “Alpha-Rich” articles per day on its pro site, for which it will pay $500 apiece. Let’s say it also features a couple of dozen Pro articles at $100 a pop: that adds up to an editorial budget of $5,000 per day, or about $1.25 million per year. Divide that by $2,388, allow some budget for in-house editors and the like, and the product looks like it will break even once it gets to about 600 subscribers. Which is not all that many, considering Seeking Alpha gets about 4 million visitors per month from the US alone.
I would never recommend any stock-picking subscription, just as I would never recommend stock-picking. But the Seeking Alpha model is quite a clever one: the articles are behind a paywall for 1-3 days, then they get opened up to the public, where they can accumulate a decent comment stream and give the author (as well as the subscription product) the oxygen of publicity. After that, they go back behind the paywall, because even old analysis is valuable when you’re dealing, as Seeking Alpha wants to do, primarily with undercovered small-cap stocks.
What’s more, it stands to reason that a crowdsourced product is likely to provide more value than product with just one or two authors: no individual can come up with that many insightful ideas, and Seeking Alpha Pro is able to prominently feature ideas from contributors who might only have one or two great analyses per year.
Still, the ultimate value of any such product is ultimately likely to be negative rather than positive, if only because once you’ve paid for it, you’re going to want to act on it. And the minute you start trading stocks on your own, you become the dumb money.
How much is the real cost of a subscription, then? The $2,388 a year is just the up-front cost, but on top of that you need to layer on your trading fees and your general underperformance. What’s more, if you’re subscribing to Seeking Alpha Pro, you’re probably subscribing to other products, too. Call it $5,000 a year, all-in.
Which is actually not that much, compared to other hobbies: I know people who can spend $5,000 on a single bicycle. If you’re into classic cars, $5,000 is nothing. And similarly, if you’re skiing or flying around in small planes or even just taking a luxury vacation once a year, $5,000 can be a relatively modest sum for a reasonably affluent person. And none of those hobbies come with the extra thrill of dreaming that they could end up being highly profitable.
One thing I would note, though: from a financial-media perspective, you’re limiting yourself enormously if you spend too much time chasing that small group of hobbyists — especially if you’re not trying to sell them subscriptions. Look at the enormous number of websites which put stock tickers next to company names, so that the hobbyists can see exactly what the stock in question is doing that day. It makes the site seem as though it’s targeted at silly males, rather than at a broader, smarter audience.
As a rule: if you want to attract women (and most men for that matter) as well as the stock-picking men, get rid of those tickers and sparklines and constant reminders of what the market did today. Most of the hobbyists are perfectly capable of reading a news article about Apple without being told what the company’s ticker symbol is. But the rest of us find such things incredibly annoying.