MESSAGE IN THE BABBLE
Would you take investment advice from anonymous tipsters called JanisJoplin298, GordGekko, or AlanGreeneggsnspam?

Sounds risky. But according to James Felton, these nom-de-Web kibitzers may have foretold Enron’s crash while Wall Street experts were still dazzled. Felton, an associate professor of finance at Central Michigan University, and a colleague studied thousands of posts to Yahoo!’s Enron Message Board from 1997 to 2001. Excerpts from 217 of the messages, to be published this fall in The Journal of Investing, add up to what Felton calls “a compelling four-year history of Enron as told by apparent insiders.”

Were these messages posted by Enron employees — or auditors — who knew the house of cards would fold? “Companies can’t leak information like they used to,” says Felton. “But what about the employees? People used to spread insider info at the country club or at dinner. Now they can get on a message board and post anonymously.”

Felton doesn’t advise anyone to buy or sell a stock based solely on postings from Yahoo!, the Motley Fool, MSN Money, or other message boards. But he believes there may be value in wading through the name-calling, spam, and pump-and-dump tactics that choke many boards.

“I’ll usually spend a little time on the boards, just to see what people are talking about,” he says. “If a lot of people are bringing up a topic not being addressed by the company, at least you know the right questions to ask.”