I just read this excellent story on Casper and the world of online mattress review websites and that made me of course think of stock trading services and what happens if you try to find reviews of them. Unlike with mattresses, where a $50 affiliate commission is quite common on sales, with stock trading services commissions of 25% to 33% are common and they can go much, much higher. Also, with mattresses, even if you end up not particularly happy (as I am not that happy with my Helix Sleep mattress) at least you end up with a functional, new mattress. If you sign up for many trading services you will end up trying to learn to trade from somebody who fakes their own trades or lied about their own trading record. Even if you find a trading service that has a good track record and the person running it knows how to trade successfully, the odds still favor you losing money — because trading successfully is very hard.
Did you read the article on Casper and Sleepopolis at Fast Company yet? If not, do so now. The problem with the mattress review world (and I think this is a general problem for any product where online reviews can make or break them) is that the incentive for mattress companies is to do whatever is necessary to get to the top of rankings, no matter how. They can do that by incentivizing the reviewer with higher affiliate payouts or by giving the reviewer extra payments, such as a consulting agreement or some other payment scheme. The reviewer is incentivized to direct more people to the company giving him or her the highest payouts. The result is that the reviews for mattresses become completely untrustworthy — some review sites might be slightly biased, others might be totally biased, but it is hard to tell the difference. Of course the solution to this is to get a subscription to Consumer Reports which doesn’t have these conflicts of interest (I’m a happy subscriber and have been for a decade). Here are their mattress recommendations.
Unfortunately, Consumer Reports does not rate trading services or Twitter traders. Tim Sykes started Investimonials.com for the purpose of getting traders’ reviews of trading services but really that site never took off and never got much beyond the penny stock niche. And of course user reviews can be gamed, most obviously on Amazon.com. Even without monetary payments, a service provider can urge satisfied users to write reviews and thus increase their rating. Still, there is useful information in user reviews sites like Investimonials (or Yelp) — the user just needs to expect a positive bias and seek out both positive and negative reviews and read them in detail. If there are no negative reviews then that is a red flag — even the best businesses leave some customers unhappy.
And of course, this is just talking about half the problem — service providers offering reviewers inducements for positive reviews. They can also threaten libel lawsuits to eliminate negative reviews. Or they can pay the review website to remove negative reviews. This is quite possibly a worse problem and will cause the most negative reviews to tend to disappear from the internet. It is impossible to know how big of a problem this is.
Of course, one way to get around the problem of fake or gamed user reviews and the threat of lawsuits is to have a convicted felon with a huge judgment hanging over his head that he can never hope to pay write trading website reviews. But such a site (which exists, but I won’t link to it for reasons I explain below) can still suffer from the tendency to give positive reviews to services that then advertise with it. And the specific website I’m thinking of, while doing a pretty good job of identifying many frauds, seems to think that some legitimate (in my eyes) services are complete frauds. For that reason I won’t link to or even name Emmett’s website.
Why don’t I write reviews of various trading services? I learned a bunch from Tim Sykes and a couple other trading services and I obviously wouldn’t be able to be bias free. That is why I have not reviewed trading services that I have tried; the only times I have written about trading services is when I recommended them (at some point), or had some other reason to write about them (such as when a trading service was owned by stock promoters).
What can you, an aspiring trader, do? First, never trust claims of good performance. Anybody can claim that they turned $3,000 into $10 million. Ask to see some sort of real proof. Even more, look at a person’s trades and verify that they were possible and weren’t in illiquid stocks. No matter how positive your initial impression of a trading service, search out negative opinions (luckily, there are plenty of those on Twitter about everyone) and weigh those against the positive opinions you see. There are plenty of invalid criticisms as well as valid criticisms out there.
Unfortunately, there are so many people looking to get rich through trading that you likely will have no luck if you ask for account statements or tax returns to prove a guru’s performance (but I have some). Even after looking at a number of trades, it can be hard to tell if someone is a good trader — particularly over a short period of time a trader can be successful just because of the niche they are in. In a crazy bull market most swing traders will look great. Caveat emptor and do your own research. Most importantly, never blindly follow another trader — no matter what guru you follow, even if he or she is talented, you are likely to lose money just due to slippage.
Unfortunately, the only way to decide with high confidence if a trading service is worthwhile is to subscribe to it for months and assiduously track the trades of the guru to confirm that they are realistic and that they are consistently profitable. I even subscribed to Anthony Davian’s trading service for two months before concluding that he likely knew less than I did. In addition to that, you need to analyze their trading strategy to determine that it makes sense and that you could conceivably implement it yourself.