Read The Footnotes

70% of people don’t read beyond the headlines. I don’t know if this is true or where I saw it but it feels right. Footnote reading has got to be a rare sport. Perhaps one in a hundred do that. Some deep understanding requires footnote experience.

We’re overloaded with a world run by clicks and giggles, one that plays with our emotions so footnotes get lost and can go deep1. Some are worth ignoring or skimming. Goldman Sachs’ recent annual report has 30 footnotes and sub-threads, spanning over 100 pages worth of disclosures and auditors’ reports.

Many things deserve auto-pilot but fine print needs some care. If you index invest, footnotes are on mute. Your risk is spread like crepe batter and so, to you, it doesn’t matter. Executive compensation, timing of share buybacks, firm strategy…all ignored. I’ve never read a terms & conditions disclosure. The risk-reward is too skewed. But the world needs detectives. I took a financial reporting class in college. One case study looked at the accounting distortions of oil inventories, another was on Boston Chicken and franchise financing. Hint: it’s not a good sign when franchisees bail and sell their businesses back to the parent company. So obvious ex-post.

Understanding footnotes includes understanding what’s omitted. It means seeking disconfirming evidence instead of cheering for likes. A Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers study, a rare gold-standard randomized controlled trial surrounding social determinants of health, shows a keen detective’s eye. The idea was to track the sickest patients and add a full cushion of support, social workers, care teams, doctors and nurses, to guide them to better health and reduce hospital readmissions. Hospital readmissions didn’t go down. Dr. Brenner, a lead on the study, is a hero. He recognized the results didn’t work as planned. “It’s my life’s work. So, of course, you’re upset and sad.” I wouldn’t bet against Dr. Brenner. Future iterations may get him closer to a framework for better community health.

Some of today’s detectives and inventors are missing. Many of this generation’s would-be Edisons are working on how to maximize views, ad dollars, and checkout baskets, making the Truth harder to discern. Others have over-diversified their cares or are too quick to judge. For many things in life, wait 72 hours before judging. It’s tough to say I don’t know; I need more information. Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom,” says Charlie Munger.

Read the footnotes. Adjust the ship’s sails. Use the right metrics and accept the truth. The world is full of footnotes. To be clear thinkers, we have to have the will, the independence, and the lens to know when and where to look, and when to pause judgment.

Disclosures: my personal healthcare coverage is a $5,000 deductible cost-sharing plan (non-ACA compliant). Healthcare investments: long CI, HQY; short (via long puts): TDOC. I have a Lively HSA and have invested most of the balance in 5 stocks7 via a self-directed TD Ameritrade account. 

Photo by ???? ??? on Unsplash



  1. David Foster Wallace: And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self
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