Bet Me

Whenever financial journalists, or the experts they quote, discuss a particular company these days, they must almost always take some sort of stand as to whether that company’s share price will go up or down. Even if they don’t mention shares specifically, some prediction is often expected: Will the company, or its sector, succeed or fail? Like it or not, this is what consumers of financial news are generally looking for. (And if you aren’t sure whether you like it or not, maybe you’ll find some answers in the recent Slate dialogue between James J. Cramer and Howard Kurtz about Kurtz’s new book.)

It’s an awful burden. It’s awful because it is extremely difficult to predict the fortunes of this or that company, and no matter how carefully you do your research, there is a chance the market will prove you wrong, and someone (Howard Kurtz, for instance) will materialize to brand you, in hindsight, a fool. The result is that, being human beings, financial journalists and their sources often hedge. Or to put it more bluntly, they waffle. Some waffling is better than other waffling, and one of the best waffly pieces of advice is: “Don’t bet against it.”

What, for example, do you think will happen to Cisco stock? “I would not bet against Cisco,” Scott Bleier of Prime Charter informed viewers of CNNfn’s “Talking Stock” last month. “I would not bet against John Chambers.” Forbes, for the record, has also suggested that “we wouldn’t bet against” Cisco. How about Yahoo? “We’d be hesitant to bet against Yahoo,” a co-manager of Merrill Lynch Internet Strategies confided to recently. Just the other day, in another CNNfn interview, Art Hogan of Jefferies & Company took the following stand: “I would not bet against tech and telecom and probably the financials going forward not just for the next three months but for the next three years.”

The great thing about this is that it sounds so forceful, wise, insiderish. And yet it leaves plenty of room to maneuver, since the speaker isn’t really advising you to bet on anything at all. Employed properly, it seems flat-out imperative, without actually predicting much of anything. And so it is that this phrase, in several variations, has become one of the great clichés of money talk. After all, it works in practically any circumstance.

Jeff Bezos, for some reason under interrogation from the Chicago Tribune on the subject of, the sports site that is associated with Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and John Elway, once confessed that he “wouldn’t bet against Michael Jordan under any circumstances.” Is the computer age ever going to do away with paper? “I wouldn’t bet against something that’s been used for 4,500 years,” an Internet consultant told the readers of USA Today. A Fortune headline earlier this year over a short item assessing Microsoft stock, advised: “Don’t bet against Bill.” These are examples I’m picking randomly from a Nexis search, and just to show that the phrase has stood the test of time, here’s something from 1985: In a New York Times story about Atari Corporation, which was then trying to convince the world that it was still a player, a rival executive said of Atari’s founder: “I wouldn’t bet against him.” Well, maybe he should have.

Actually that brings up a reasonable question: If one can’t bet against Cisco, Yahoo!, Microsoft, the tech, telecom and financial sectors, Michael Jordan, paper, or Atari, then what can one bet against? It’s hard to say. For example, would you bet against Well, if you do, you’re not only betting against its founder, Jay Walker, who various observers consider a clever business theorist, but also against John Malone, Paul Allen, and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, all of whom have made investments in the firm. Who would bet against that lineup? Actually it turns out that none other than Carl Icahn bet against them, reportedly shorting Priceline at prices from $80 to $160 a share. It closed today below $10. So, is the lesson here not to bet against Icahn? Or just that it’s more or less impossible to figure out to whom to not bet against? I guess I’d go with the latter choice. Although I wouldn’t bet on it.