Joel Lovell on Money Advisers

By Joel Lovell
Sunday, March 1, 2009

I write a monthly column for GQ magazine called "Men + Money," and I had this moment recently, as I was writing about how to rethink 401(k) allocations, when I got to the end of a paragraph and reread it and thought, "There's a good chance that what I just wrote is precisely the wrong advice." I tried to figure out how to acknowledge that in the column itself and say, basically, "Please don't make any important financial decisions based on what I'm telling you to do. I honestly don't know. But also please come back and read what I have to say next month!" It wasn't the kind of column that inspired a ton of confidence, money-management-wise.

I mention this less as a confession of my own incompetence than as an example of how difficult it is to say anything with genuine authority these days, at least when it comes to financial advice. Should you jump into the market now and buy low? Should you keep everything in cash for the next year or two or five? Should you invest in China or natural gas or gold? Beats me. I've been writing this column for about a year and a half, so I've done my research, talked to a bunch of investment analysts and made an effort to understand what's going on now and where we might be headed. But really, I can't begin to claim to know. And when I think back on the advice I've given and realize that my readers would have been far better off if each month I'd said, "You know what, let's stick with Plan A and just stuff our money into a satchel and bury it beneath the swing set" -- well, it makes me feel like a bit of a fraud.

I'm comforted by the fact that last March, just days before Bear Stearns stock became worthless, Jim Cramer's head nearly exploded off his shoulders, so intense was his conviction that his viewers should NOT. SELL. BEAR. But what I don't understand is the hundreds of thousands of people who still tune in every night to hear what he has to say. The newfound populist fame of CNBC's Rick Santelli is a mystery, too. His recent rant against Obama's mortgage bailout plan was really just more not-so-thoughtful advice, wasn't it? His seemed to be just another yelp from the network that surely did its part showing people the way to the bottom, now telling the president with complete conviction that a lot of those people shouldn't be helped back up.

It's weird and disconcerting that after all that has happened there are still so many experts out there willing to dispense wisdom with utter assuredness, day after day, despite having been so spectacularly wrong in the past. Their confidence saps my own. For those of us in the advice business -- and this extends beyond just investment advice to everything else in our lives that now exists in the firm grip of uncertainty -- the challenge is: How do I tell people what to do when prospects are so grim and outcomes so completely unpredictable? How do I acknowledge the limits of what I know while still maintaining credibility?

These are questions the Jim Cramers of the world, and the ubiquitous and somewhat frighteningly undaunted Suze Orman, don't seem very interested in dealing with. (I should give Cramer credit for admitting he was wrong on Bear, though he wrapped his mea culpa in a blustery version of "I was actually mostly right.") It's not just a CNBC problem, of course. Really, this argument can be applied on almost any level, from personal-finance bloggers right up to the men running Treasury and the Fed. But Cramer's nightly perch is a network devoted to money, and I've watched it a lot, and more than anything else it has come to represent an ongoing televised display of a culture in denial. The more terrifying and destabilizing the news, the more the financial-news sages seem to commit themselves to dispensing advice with unblinking certitude.

Maybe some of you witnessed the surreal scene a few weeks ago when the economists Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Dr. Doom and Black Swan, as they're now routinely called in the media) appeared on the network and outlined the end of global finance as we know it. In response to their extraordinarily downbeat assessment, Roubini and Taleb were asked repeatedly for . . . stock tips. Really. The conversation boiled down to: There's a profound crisis in the essential structure upon which the world's economy is built, potentially unlike anything we've witnessed before. Okay, great, thanks for that, Doom and Swan! So what should folks do with their kids' college funds?

Yes, it's important to think about how to save for the future. It's just that this example illustrates how uncomfortable we are with not knowing, and how unpracticed we are at thinking beyond "What's the news I can use?" Obviously part of that is a function of human nature, since we want someone to show us the way in moments of confusion and anxiety. And it's also, of course, a function of television, since "yes, but . . . " and "I don't know" aren't exactly the keys to ratings gold.

But there is something uniquely American about our craving to be told what to do, at least if the number of TV shows and radio programs and books and magazines devoted to doing just that are any indication. We're a people who like to maximize -- our wealth and our connections and our potential -- and for the last several years the message has been delivered, ever more loudly and clearly, from more and more sources, that if we buy X or do Y or follow the example of Z, then maximum happiness will indeed be ours.

Those were good times for the advice industry. (According to Nielsen BookScan, for instance, more than 13 million self-help books were sold in America in 2008, up from about 9.5 million in 2004.) But those times are gone, along with our retirement savings and our job security and the quaint notion that our homes should double as giant cash machines. The lexicon of maximization, the advice-givers' tone of certainty, now rings untrustworthy and hollow.

So how can advice-givers be trusted?

The answer, I think, is to share our own doubts and talk openly about our own anxieties, which requires speaking in a language we're not especially cozy with in America. I had dinner recently with a friend who'd lost his job as a trader and who'd spent much of the past few months going to a career counseling service, trying to get back on his feet. He described seeing two different advisers, one who was relentlessly upbeat, telling my friend that he'd be back on Wall Street in no time, and another who was not only much more pessimistic about job prospects but who also talked openly about the stresses these times impose upon a marriage. That second counselor even spoke about what he and his own wife, who'd lost her job, were going through, and the possibility that my friend should leave New York, maybe transfer his skills to another, less lucrative field and downsize his life. He said that things weren't going to be what they were, that there was going to be loss and compromise, and that maybe this was okay. "Everyone there wanted to see him," my friend said. "At least it felt like he was living in the same world as the rest of us, which was kind of therapeutic."

The language of psychotherapy -- the recognition that few things in life are black and white, that it mostly consists of perplexing shades of gray -- seems immensely more helpful now than the self-assured, directive lingo we've all become accustomed to speaking or hearing. The advice I trust the most now comes wrapped in doubt. Here's what I'd do, and this is why I think it's right, but I'm not sure. What's implicit is the acknowledgment that very little is a sure thing, that if we follow this advice, we're following at our own risk, and that every potential gain also carries within it the possibility of loss.

Imagine where we might be if we'd spoken in a language that recognized this all along.

The writer will be online to take reader questions at 11 a.m. Monday. Submit yours here before and during the discussion.

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