The End of Personal Responsibility?

Being a part-time student of history, I know that former President Herbert Hoover's insistence on "rugged individualism" at the outset of the Great Depression did nothing to help millions falling into poverty. But Hoover also wasn't unsympathetic. After all, he is the president whose "a chicken in every pot" stump speech won him election in 1928. It's just that he didn't believe in unlimited social welfare. He argued that Americans, on balance, had to take responsibility for themselves.

Though cold, and obviously poorly timed, Hoover's take isn't really that far off. Consider: I'm held responsible when I make a mistake in my writing. I'm also responsible when I make poor judgments that hurt my investing returns. (And, boy, have I made some big ones.) That's the way it should be, right? Right?! Maybe not.

Yesterday, the attorney for Gary and Lisa Friedman issued a press release announcing a $1.03 million judgment against Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) . A three-person arbitration panel concluded that Merrill's sleazy tactics in using sugarcoated analyst reports to boost relationships with investment banking clients victimized the Friedmans. That's because they relied on analyst ratings to buy stocks for their portfolio. Not surprisingly, from 1999 to 2002, the investing period the case covered, the Freidmans saw huge losses in their portfolio.

At the risk of coming off a little like Hoover, I've got to call shenanigans on this one. The Friedmans were Merrill clients as far back as 1983. They had first-hand experience with the giant black hole that was the 1987 market crash. That means they knew how risky stocks could be. And they knew enough to make their own trades. What about those who don't? Should those served by full-service brokers who lose money sue also?

Sure, Merrill's analyst research was as bogus as William Shatner's toupee in Star Trek IV. Analysts deliberately withheld their true opinions of stocks, and that led some to make tragic investment mistakes. Merrill deserves to be punished. But should that include compensation for losses in the market? No. No way.

A better solution would have been to refund the Friedmans all of their investing fees from 1999 to 2002, plus some sort of punitive damages for deceptive business practices. That would have been reasonable, while also reinforcing the idea that if you choose to handle your own investing, you do so at your own risk. It's this very principle that helped found The Motley Fool in the first place -- in 1993. And that's why, even today, though we offer our own unvarnished stock research, so many of our educational resources remain free. From our Fool's School to the Broker Center to our financial calculators -- it's all there to amuse, educate, and enrich you. Take of advantage of them today. Or, at least, before you read another analyst report.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers doesn't rank Hoover anywhere near the top of the list of U.S. presidents. Who's your favorite, and why? Share your thoughts with other Fools at the Political Asylum discussion board. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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