What is wrong with my industry? Part 2

Tina Haapala |

Last week, I began a series designed to show you how to spot the bad folks in the investment world (my business). I’ve rounded up the usual suspects into 3 categories: People who lie, cheat, and steal; People who act recklessly; and People whose judgment is clouded by conflicts of interest. Last week we covered the liars, cheaters, and stealers. This week, let’s look at the reckless.

Reckless behavior is hard to spot because it often looks like you’re involved with someone who is on top of things. These people really do believe they are doing right by you. However, don’t expect much from them when a bunch of your money goes down the drain. Let’s look at an example.

During the late  ‘90s an advisor had shifted a lot of his clients’ money into technology. Like the rest of the world, he was as caught up in the hype of Internet riches. When things started going south he “knew” that it was a buying opportunity, so he shifted more of his clients’ assets into tech. When tech plummeted, he margined his clients’ accounts to buy even more tech. In essence, this allowed him to buy more of these stocks using borrowed money. Money borrowed on his clients’ behalf. When the smoke cleared, losses were about all that remained.

This also points to why it is sometimes difficult to discern reckless from prudent behavior. After all, I regularly tell folks that the key to investing is to buy low and sell high. When the market has crashed, it sure ain’t high. That’s why in late 2008 we shifted some client money from the bond side to the stock side of their portfolios. Why isn’t that as reckless as the  ‘90s  advisor?

Here’s why: The 90s  advisor shifted from having a bunch, to having most, to having over 100% of the clients’ money in a single slice of the market. That over-extension, as well as “all eggs in one basket” decision is the key. No matter how good something looks it can go down. No matter how far it has gone down, it can go down some more. (Okay, if it hit zero, it will probably stop.)

Another area of recklessness is the advisor who is all excited about a new type of investment—one they know little about. You see, most people in my business don’t spend their days researching the markets, learning about new statistical analysis techniques, or reading those boring prospectuses. They spend their days selling. Now, that is a part of the business…one that if ignored will have them—and me—go belly-up. But someone in the organization had better be vetting all the new-fangled investments that come out every year.

So, when something you’ve never heard of before is offered to you, especially if it seems like it solves all your problems and has a cherry on top (like much tech in the ‘90s), be wary. Often the person presenting it to you really doesn’t understand what he’s selling…but is just repeating what a wholesaler told him. Since a wholesaler’s job is to get the agent or broker representative to sell the product du jour, it is quite possible that they emphasized only the good and none of the bad. Sure, the risks are listed in the product literature somewhere, but when it goes unread by an advisor, their decisions turn reckless.

This article was published under the title "Don't be reckless with money"

in the Wichita Falls Times Record News on June 22, 2014.