I have often found that it's the little details about a person that give away a lot about who that individual really is. I'm sure you've all heard expressions like "walk the talk" or "speak softly and carry a big stick" (the latter made famous by America's 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt). These statements are meant to suggest that a person's behavior, surroundings and, indeed, their whole life, should reflect who that individual purports to be.
This should particularly be the case, in my opinion, if that person holds themselves out in a public way, proclaiming to be an expert or master at something, and says that others should listen to (or more likely, buy) the expertise or mastery that person has to sell.
Which brings me to Robert Kiyosaki, best-selling author of the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad and king of a vast self-help empire. After taking a closer look at Kiyosaki's work, I think his "advice" is both inaccurate and patronizing.
A controversial figure, to say the least -- much of what he claims to have achieved as a businessman and investor has never, to my knowledge, been verified -- Kiyosaki travels the country speaking to stadium-sized audiences on the subject of financial literacy. In addition, his infomercials, lectures, books, classes, and other material reach millions.
Now, don't get me wrong; I think the subject of financial literacy is very important. Look at The Motley Fool, for instance. We all know it does a heck of a job helping people out with stock market investing, personal finance, investor behavior, and even economics! And I'm happy to say that I'm involved by way of these columns I contribute from time to time. In addition to the Fool, I give advice on my radio show, in my daily research report, and in the things I talk about when I make appearances on Fox News.
Let's face it: Advice-giving has become an industry. However, it is a useful one, because it fulfills most people's need for information and education. Moreover, being educated about one's finances is extremely important, so in this regard advice-givers serve a vital purpose -- so long as their information and advice is honest, sincere, and dedicated to the people they want to educate. On the other hand, I get nervous when I see advice-givers who lack humility. They are loath to admit mistakes -- when they flubbed up -- though we all know this can happen from time to time in the markets.
They talk as if their ideas were the gospel and as if they themselves had never made a wrong move. Yet somehow, on close inspection, they are just not walking the talk. In some cases, much of what they do is about recruiting other advice-givers, rather than actually honing and giving quality advice. This strategy is the well-known business model embraced by all multi-level marketing (MLM) operators -- I'm sure we all know companies that operate in this way. The "products" they offer merely provide the salesperson with an entry point to the customer, but the real goal is to recruit the customer as a salesperson, who will then go on and recruit someone else as a salesperson, and so on and so forth. The higher up toward the top of that pyramid you go, the more you earn. It has nothing to do with the product, really.
From my vantage point, Kiyosaki's business model looks quite similar.
Which exchange are you talking about?
I'll start with the advice he provides, which is often very condescending. Much of the wisdom can be best described as simplistic, unsophisticated and in some cases, totally absurd. ("You're a loser if you work at a job. Formal education is a waste of time if you want to get rich. Mutual funds are for losers," etc.)
Sometimes, he doesn't even bother to check his facts. In a recent column on Yahoo! Finance titled "Only the Rich Survive" (again using cockiness in the headline, possibly to sell more books and self-help material, but nonetheless, something that should make you wary), he talks about a visit he made to the New York Mercantile Exchange this past June. With characteristic haughtiness, he tells the reader, "For those of you unfamiliar with the NYMEX, it's the exchange where commodities like orange juice, pork bellies, gold, crude oil, natural gas, copper, and silver are traded."
The NYMEX happens to be the premier energy derivatives exchange in the world. I know; I used to be a member and floor trader there. But you don't have to be a member to know that pork bellies are not traded on the NYMEX, and while orange juice is traded in the same building, it is not a NYMEX contract. Incredibly, Kiyosaki throws in crude, gasoline, and other energy contracts as a mere afterthought.
This should raise some red flags. It should tell you something about this guy. Either he's clueless, or he has complete disregard for you and the quality of the information he is giving you. (Think about it. How could he care if he has no qualms at all about telling you pork bellies are traded on NYMEX?)
The following idea should be getting clearer at this point: Kiyosaki's sole aim is to craft his information in a way that gets you excited and makes you want to buy it, or better yet, sell it for him. Whether or not it is effective investment advice appears secondary.
That's where we come to the MLM aspect of what he is doing. Through his vehicle, Cashflow Technologies, Kiyosaki markets dozens of products, from home courses to books to videos to board games (his "Cashflow 101" game sells for $200). In addition, he offers affiliate programs on his website that allow other people with websites to sell his products or get paid by directing Web traffic to his company.
There's no escaping the impression that the emphasis seems to be entirely on sheer marketing, rather than on the quality of the information, much less whether it is consistently providing thoughtful, credible, and actionable investment advice.
Sadly, behind those catchy titles, there are little more than allegorical parables. You'll find nothing in the way of "buy here, sell there," advice that is common on TMF, for example. Even Kiyosaki's self-professed real estate acumen is nowhere to be seen when it comes to providing one practical example of how to buy a multi-unit property below market value and turn it into a moneymaker. The best advice dished out is a generic "buy income properties."
It gets even worse. His market calls have been a contrarian's dream. In October 2002, at the bottom of the bear market, he came out with a book called Rich Dad's Prophecy: Why the Biggest Stock Market Crash in History Is Still Coming ... and How You Can Prepare Yourself and Profit from It!" Since then, the Dow has risen 60%, and the S&P has risen 73%. Of course, he'll tell you the crash is still coming. This way, he won't have to admit to being wrong.
Back in March, and again in July, he trumpeted gold and silver when both metals were near their highs. They have since fallen sharply. Without getting too deep into his rationale, I'll just say that it was full of contradictions. But the oddest thing was why he offered up that advice in the first place, because it goes against the core principle of what he has been trying to teach investors over the years: Invest in things that bring you passive income. Gold and silver both pay you nothing.
The price of candor
Let me be honest: I understand that nobody's perfect, especially when it comes to market forecasting. I'll be the first to admit it. I've been a trader, investor, and market analyst for nearly 30 years, and I've made some incredibly bad calls. However, I've always had the candor to say so, and I think the same can be said for other serious professionals in this field.
At the beginning, I said that the advice business is largely a good industry that fills a vital need. But at the same time, buyers and users of advice still have to be careful. Nowhere is the expression caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") more applicable than in the arena of investment advice. What you are buying cannot just cause you to waste or lose the money spent; it can end up costing you much, much more -- perhaps all of your life savings. That's why you need to be very careful.
I have found that the best way to protect yourself is to always check for candor, openness, accuracy of information, and above all, humility on the part of the advice-giver. When you consider these criteria, Robert Kiyosaki fails the test.
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Fool contributor Mike Norman is the founder and publisher of the Economic Contrarian Update and a Fox News business contributor. He is also a radio show host at BizRadio Network. The Fool has a disclosure policy.