Martha, the Market and You
(MONEY Magazine) – I can't think about Martha Stewart's infamous call from the tarmac--the one authorizing the ImClone stock sale that caused her all that trouble--without recalling an ad that online broker Ameritrade ran back in 1999. Martha, ever the multitasker, interrupted a post-Christmas vacation flight to make her little trade. In the ad, two soccer moms cut short a jog so that one of them can pop on her PC for a bit of day-trading. Unloading a hot biotech stock for a quick profit, she declares, "I think I just made $1,700." Her friend, impressed, sheepishly admits, "I have mutual funds," as if holding funds rather than stocks was as déclassé as a collection of Michael Bolton CDs.
In her heyday as a domestic diva, Martha offered an intoxicating fantasy of a life as tightly ordered as one of her famous to-do lists. Few of us actually went so far as decorating Easter eggs with dye made from home-grown beets, but it was nice to pretend we could if we wanted.
Meanwhile, back when the markets were at their frothiest, ads like Ameritrade's promoted a similar fantasy of control. It wasn't enough to just be in the market--you had to master it, transforming yourself into a nimble-fingered day-trader, a perfect little Martha of the market.
In truth, it was never that easy--for Martha or for the rest of us. Her picture-perfect existence was possible only with the help of an army of scurrying assistants. And even in the headiest days of the boom, not many soccer moms made quick bucks trading while baby napped.
Indeed, Martha's too conveniently timed ImClone sale seems less a genius move in retrospect: The stock has recovered much of what it lost after the Food and Drug Administration rejected the company's marketing plans for its cancer drug, Erbitux. Turns out, the stuff actually works, and this February the FDA finally approved its use for colon cancer. If only Martha had held on--and bought more on the dip.
The best homemaking advice I've ever run across came not from the pages of Martha Stewart Living but from New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, who once suggested that when life seemed too overwhelming, throw a few dirty dishes in the trash. You don't have to follow this advice literally--though I have--to appreciate its spirit, to understand that life can be a lot less stressful if you abandon the fiction of total control. Not only can you do just fine as an investor without fussing over your portfolio every time the market lurches, chances are you'll do even better if you never give in to your trading temptations. --D.F.