Monday, February 7, 2011

How to Gain Twitter-Fame for Penny Stock Advice, with no Skill, Knowledge (or Profits) Required.

Along with upcoming rappers, Bieber fans, and ad-bots there’s a rash of penny stock advice to be found on Twitter. At first I dismissed it as one of many eccentricities of the platform, but after seeing a few dozen assorted “penny stock” accounts I started to wonder. What could explain these accounts peddling advice on securities that most investors wouldn’t line a litter-box with?

So-called "penny stocks" may range in cost from a few dollars to a fraction of a cent. For example, instead of buying one share of IBM at $164.68, it would be possible to instead purchase 4,450 shares of Double Eagle Gold Holdings (DEGH) at $.037 per share (amusingly, both stocks are currently near their respective peak historical values). DEGH had been running at an average price of about $.003 for most of the last year. If an investor had a crystal ball and could foresee this recent ten-fold run up in price, there would have been a lot of money to be made; therein lies the temptation of penny stocks.

Of course, anyone who actually had that crystal ball and put it to use in the market would be far too rich to bother with running a Twitter account. So why are there hundreds of penny stock tweeters out there? To explain, here is a theory of how ANYONE can appear blessed with penny stock clairvoyance.

The Five-Step Guide to Achieving Twitter-fame with Penny Stock Advice:

Step 1: Pick out 100 penny stocks at random, and buy $10 worth in each of them for a total cost of $1,000 plus brokerage fees (or, if you’re cheap, just consistently follow the prices of 100 penny stocks).

Step 2: Wait. As is normal for inexpensive and highly volatile stocks, the price of some will go up dramatically and others down equally dramatically.

Step 3: Ignore the stocks that go down. Out of the 100, by random chance you’re almost assured to see one go up every now and then. Get on Twitter and brag about how well your picks in the stocks that went up are going.

Step 4: Construct self-promotional statistics to describe how well an investor could have done if they had known exactly when these volatile stocks would move up and down, then tweet about anyone can generate “POTENTIAL 237% PROFITS!!!” based on your expert advice.

Step 5: Bask in fame and adulation. If you are lucky, people will buy a subscription to your newsletter. Or, if they follow your advice, it will drive up the price of penny stocks you own. Then sell off the penny stocks that went up due to your “wisdom” and leave your followers to eat the losses as the stock shifts back down. 

I can’t verify that every penny stock tweeter uses this self-serving strategy. However, it’s the only way I can think of making money off penny stocks, so I’d guess that a large ratio of those Twitter accounts have something like this in mind.

In the time it took me to write the above, DEGH – which I noticed as a result of a penny stock tweet – has dropped 35%. IBM, on the other hand, changed 0.30% in that hour. In a nutshell, this is why investing in penny stocks is probably not a good idea: you get all the risk of stock market speculation without much stake in any real value (or else why is the stock so cheap?). Markets tend to be efficient and integrate available information into stock prices, so when a stock costs a fraction of a cent, it’s probably because many people rate its investment value somewhere near a lottery ticket.

The DEGH rollercoaster, courtesy of Google Finance. Notice the peak, then sudden drop at the end.

To make matters even worse, even if you successfully buy low and sell high with penny stocks – a difficult proposition, given how quickly the values change – you’ll be eaten alive in brokerage fees. For the example above, even if one used a discount brokerage like Scottrade, the cost of each purchase would be a $7 flat fee – making a $1,000 investment cost a total of $1,700. It would take a crystal ball, extraordinary luck, or loads of self-serving information delivered to a mass audience in order to generate enough returns to cover that cost. When you see someone giving investment advice on Twitter, mentally ask which of those three categories you think they fall into.

Note: for entertainment purposes only. I’m not dispensing investment advice; the stocks named were solely for example purposes, not as endorsement. If you’re reading this and run a penny stock service I’m sure you’re the exception to the above, and love children, flowers, kittens and your advisees all equally and would never pull such a scam on them. I’m just writing about your competition. But I would awfully like to peak at your crystal ball sometime when you get a chance.