Mark Hulbert may have shaved off his beard, styled his hair and traded in flannel work shirts for designer suits.
But he's still the relentless investment letter tracker he was 15 years ago when he started the Hulbert Financial Digest.
I first met Hulbert shortly after that publication was launched. He preached his philosophy of keeping pundits honest by constructing and following a mythical $10,000 portfolio based on each editor's recommendations. As a recent graduate of Oxford University, he was intent on quantifying advice.
To many, Hulbert was a long-haired upstart likely to go away once his eyes had been blackened a few times by angry investment newsletter editors.
Newsletters have come and gone, but Hulbert is around to celebrate his 15th anniversary. He has tinkered only moderately with his methodology, and his huge database makes 170 newsletters and telephone hot lines accountable.
Although he sports a more conservative look, he's still not loved by all. I recently viewed a television confrontation between him and one of his harshest critics, James Dines of the Dines Letter, who was blasting Hulbert's methodology. Hulbert, as always, held his own.
"Perhaps my most lasting impact has been to encourage greater clarity in advice, since newsletters have had a reputation of speaking out of both sides of their mouth," Hulbert told this column recently. "Because it's hard to predict the market, everyone tries to couch and qualify predictions."
Investments letters have become more direct with prognostications. Whether or not Hulbert has always been 100 percent on the mark with all his calls, he has certainly restructured an industry.
"My publication has given the newsletter industry some respectability," believes Hulbert. "It points out the industry can't be dismissed with the same broad brush, for there's both good and bad in it."
Long- and near-term results are noteworthy, and Hulbert has a long enough track record to cover both extremes. (The 15,000-circulation Hulbert Financial Digest, 316 Commerce St., Alexandria, Va. 22314, offers a five-month trial subscription for $37.50.)
Some winners tracked by Hulbert:
* Best-performing investment letter over 15 years: Value Line Investment Survey, 220 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10017, whose model portfolio is up 1,161 percent (an average of 18 percent annually with a 15 percent gain in 1995).
Value Line research chairman Samuel Eisenstadt considers his publication "more magazine than newsletter." It rates 1,700 stocks, using a quantitative system that considers factors such as earnings growth and momentum.
It has recommended technology stocks Intel Corp., Micron Technology, Texas Instruments and Motorola Inc. Other picks are Amgen Inc., Delta Air Lines and Halliburton Co.
"We're currently cautious on the market, recommending a 60 percent to 70 percent invested position," said Eisenstadt, whose publication costs $525 annually. "But we do not believe that the Dow Jones industrials are drastically overpriced."
* Best over 10 years: MPT Review, P.O. Box 10012, Incline Village, Nev. 10012, up 902 percent (26 percent annually with a 21 percent gain in 1995).
Editor Louis Navellier uses a disciplined approach to screen fundamentally superior "high alpha" stocks that have historically outperformed the market. His portfolios do better in up markets and growth markets.
He's recommending semiconductor stocks Tencor Instruments and Symantec Corp., communications stock Ascend Communications, instrument firm Helix Technology and software company SoftKey International.
"The market's getting a little risky and we're emphasizing lower beta and more conservative stocks," said Navellier, whose newsletter costs $225. "It may be a little treacherous for a couple of months, but we'll be fine as third-quarter earnings come out in October."
* Best in 1995: Medical Technology Stock Letter, P.O. Box 40460, Berkeley, Calif. 97704, up 78 percent.
Editor James McCamant said this has been a good year due to an up cycle in biotechnology.
Most companies aren't making money yet, so he must make subjective judgments. Chiron Corp., Somatogen Inc., Isis and Agouron are top performers.
"This positive cycle should last through next year," predicted McCamant, whose newsletter costs $320 annually.