Too Much Information — what would Peter Lynch do?

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, June 12, 2009

As I type this I’m waiting for the deliveryman to arrive, bringing my new router and computer — one thing I can say about life as the Stock Gumshoe, it’s hell on my laptop. The poor thing is so clogged with spam and has been sent on so many forced marches across the internet as I sleuth out our quarry, that it now comes close to overheating just at the sight of my pre-arthritic fingers. So this guy’s getting ready for backup duty, and we’ll move on to the new machine over the weekend … hopefully.

Which brings to mind the great curse of today’s investor — too much information. Some of it comes in the form of news and marketing, which we would often be just as well advised to leave alone, but even the raw data of company performance and stock movements is far too much for a simple soul to absorb. So what are we to do? After all, if intricate little lattices of silicon can overheat and destroy data, what happens in our brain when we overload it with information?

Well, one option is to simplify — and one way to do that is to go back to those halcyon days of Peter Lynch lore, when individual stock investors were few, daytrading was dominated by a small cadre of professionals, and stock returns seemed magical. Lynch was certainly in the public eye at just the right time during the rise of the investor class — and he got out at the right time, too, before the law of averages and the law of large numbers caught up with him. But Peter, who despite his incredible fame to this day only ran the Magellan mutual fund for thirteen years, was most famous for advising investors to “buy what you know,” with stories about staying at La Quinta Inns and liking them so much he bought the shares, or listening to his wife when she told him about the great innovations in pantyhose.

Does this still work today? Well, it’s obviously easier to analyze a company if you use and understand its products, or if you’re familiar with the dynamics of its industry — but as you can probably tell from reading my work over the years, I’m also perfectly willing to spout off a bit about companies that I don’t know anything at ...

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