Wall Street really is unforgiving. Now it is even beating up on the Beardstown Ladies.
The famous common-sense investment club - 16 Illinois women who trade stock tips along with their recipes - has been a media darling. The likable ladies from Beardstown, Ill., (population 6,000) have had countless television appearances and a recent hot-selling book. And really, what's not to like about a club that recently added Coca-Cola alongside longtime holding PepsiCo in its portfolio because half the club members favor each brand?But like a high-flying stock, the Beardstown Ladies may have peaked after a decade of triumph. And they know it. The group had a rare loss of 1 percent for 1994 - about the same as the overall market's drop but "not a good year for us," says the club's charter member and spokeswoman Betty Sinnock. Sinnock, 63 years old, is a bank trust officer and grandmother. Her white-corn salad recipe is on Page 201 of the book, whose cover boasts a "23.4 percent annual return."
Which brings us to a startling development: The Beardstown Ladies probably aren't going to reveal their investment performance from now on, they say. They have also scrapped plans for a movie, says Sinnock. Never mind the thrill of selling 370,000 copies of a book that combines how-tos on dollar-cost averaging with tips on how to make Elsie's Prize-Winning Angel Food Cake.
"We'd just like to get back to the basics," she says, of being a little investment club again (albeit one flush with book royalties). All the publicity "gets a little stressful after a while."
Especially this month, when the homespun stock pickers got a look at the Vulture Letter, a newsletter for "aggressive" investors. The latest issue, which is raising eyebrows on Wall Street, takes on the Beards-town crew with a tone more familiar to ordinary money managers than to a Midwestern women's club.
"Beardstown Blunders," a front-page article trumpets. This is one of the first times anyone has had the temerity to put the Beardstown record under the microscope. Written by former Merrill Lynch broker Kevin Pilot of Phoenix Capital Management in Carlsbad, Calif., the newsletter points out that the Beardstown portfolio from September 1994 - as published in the book - has since underperformed the market by a noticeable gap. He says the score is a 10.2 percent gain for the ladies, 17 percent for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index.
"Can 16 little old ladies really beat the market? Not lately," jabs the newsletter, whose logo is a vulture holding a fork and knife. The Beardstown Ladies reply that their hand-picked 25-stock portfolio ranging from Casey's General Stores to footwear-maker Wolverine World Wide did quite well for the quarter ended March 31 with a 17 percent gain (they demur when asked about their performance since March 31).
Pilot, in Carlsbad, Calif., says he doesn't mean to be mean.
Like everyone else, he likes the ladies. But "they haven't really had that great a performance, recently at least," he says. The group's awesome 59.5 percent gain for its New York Stock Exchange-listed stocks in 1991 has "skewed" its 10-year performance record, he says. More broadly, Pilot worries that small investors - and publishers, for that matter - are getting too enthralled with the Main Street-beats-Wall Street investing story. Professional advice is still a good thing, too, says Pilot, who says his firm, not-so-incidentally, manages nearly $50 million.
"The thing that got me," says Pilot, is when he heard that "people were calling them for investment advice," even offering them work as money managers. Indeed, the group turned down offers to start a mutual fund or a news-letter.
Buying popular stocks like Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald's works well in good markets, Pilot says. But popular stocks tend to sell off more quickly, too, and investment clubs like the Beards-town Ladies are vulnerable to that. For the record, Pilot is 30, younger than some of the grand-children of the Beardstown Ladies (who range in age from 42 to 88).
The women agree that the focus on their investment performance has gotten a bit unseemly. They are disappointed with the cover of "The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide" (published by Walt Disney Co.'s Hyperion publishing arm) and wish the cover had never bragged about that darn double-digit annual return. Braggadocio seems out of character for the group.