Finance is a Strange Industry

There's nothing else like it.

Aug 27, 2014 at 8:44AM

Finance is a strange industry. There's nothing else like it.

I can't think of another industry in which there is so much ignorance around costs. Nearly all financial fees are deducted from assets automatically, rather than clients receiving and paying an invoice. This makes them out of sight, out of mind. Ask someone how much their cell phone bill is, or how much a gallon of gas costs, and they can tell you down to the penny. But ask them how much they pay in advisory fees, and they may have no clue whatsoever.

The irony is that if you are moderately wealthy, advisory fees might be your single largest annual expense -- and you're probably oblivious to them. You diligently include an $8.99 Netflix subscription in your monthly household budget, but have no idea you're paying 50 times that much to your 401(k) adviser. No other industries work like this.

I can't think of another industry in which people capable of doing so much harm don't need credentials. Doctors must attend medical school. Lawyers must pass the bar. Hairstylists and manicurists need licenses. Becoming a London taxi driver requires passing a test that can take years of practice.

But managing money requires little more than the desire to manage money. If I want to be a firefighter, I need extensive training. If I want to manage the firefighters' retirement fund, I need a nice suit and a sales pitch.

Selling, rather than managing, financial products does require a license. But it is embarrassingly simple to obtain, and anyone willing to study for a few weeks can pass the test. "You should meet some of the cavemen I know who've managed to pass it," financial adviser Josh Brown once wrote. No other industry has the potential to do as much harm to society while demanding so little proven expertise. (Politics may be an exception.)

I can't think of another industry in which results matter so little. Investor Marc Faber was finally called out by a CNBC host last month for lacking credibility after years of failed predictions. Faber's response was incredible. "I started work in 1970," he said. "Over my career, somewhere, somehow I must've made some right calls. Otherwise I wouldn't be in business." What those calls were, he didn't say.

The truth is that finance is filled with people who remain in business despite awful track records. There were 894 mutual funds in 2012 that had been in business in 1998. Of those, only 275 beat their benchmarks. That means more than 600 funds have underperformed what could be achieved in a low-cost index fund, but still remained in business for a decade and a half. The worst mutual fund to own over the last 10 years -- one that has underperformed all of its peers and trailed its benchmark by 150% -- still manages more than $1 billion.

Few industries in which results are measured objectively could get away with this. Competition would clean out the bad. When you mix financial illiteracy with innumeracy and emotion, poor performance is easily ignored.

I can't think of another industry that is so poorly taught in school. Making students memorize the periodic table but teaching them almost nothing about basic finance is bad enough. But even at the college level, how finance and investing is taught is disconnected from how it actually works. Finance is taught overwhelmingly as a math-based field, in which students learn how to calculate beta by hand and dissect a balance sheet in their sleep. In the real world, finance is overwhelmingly a psychology-based field, where the best investors are those who control their emotions. This is rarely taught and never emphasized. And it's why some of the world's best investors have no formal finance training. Other fields, such as medicine and engineering, have done a much better job preparing students for the real world.

I can't think of an industry that is so important to everyone yet so few care about. I get why people don't like calculus, or chemistry, or geography. They can do fine in life without mastering those subjects. Finance is different. Everyone's well-being depends on understanding it, no matter how boring you think it is. Everyone has a moral obligation to themselves and their family to have a basic understanding of how saving, investing, debt, and interest work. When people say, "I don't like finance," they're really saying, "I don't like security, stability, comfort, or taking care of my family. And my kids probably don't need college." There are few other subjects -- health might be the exception -- in which people have an obligation to understand something, yet so many willingly choose not to.

There's really nothing else like it. Good luck to us all.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns.


Contact Morgan Housel at The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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