Just Say NO
You never know – which is to say I never know – how people will react to a column and who will react. Last week’s column, on the subject of why fundamental corporate analysis has become of very limited use in a market that is openly manipulated by central banks as part of their declared policy objectives, drew some fascinating responses, davka from professional money managers.
That they were basically in agreement is gratifying, but their additional insights were really valuable. It seems that the situation is even worse than I had thought, in that seasoned professionals relate to the markets as a) dysfunctional and b) out of line with anything they have previously experienced. Their conclusions are that the only realistic options available are either to withdraw completely from investing – which in their case means to find another profession and source of income – or to join the herd and play by the new rules which, effectively, require treating the markets as a casino that has been rigged by the house. Individual investors should think carefully about what that means.
Meanwhile, the markets’ dysfunctionality has been overshadowed by ‘the shut-down’, in which parts of the (federal) government in the US have stopped functioning altogether. This is caused by the deliberate and systematic hobbling of the functionality of the legislative branch of the US government. The price to be paid for what is now permanent and intentional gridlock mounts steadily, and it is not measured merely in dollars and percentage points of GDP lost.
The most frustrating aspect of this mess, from the viewpoint of the average American citizen, is his/her powerlessness to do anything about it. That holds true for the mess in the financial system and for the mega-mess in the political system. The only thing that individual citizens can do is to regain control of the decision-making process in their own day-to-day lives.
In last week’s column I cited a friend who said that he was trying to learn about the world of investments and financial analysis. But when he sought to enroll in one of the many courses offered on these topics by private firms, he encountered such highly aggressive sales techniques that he recoiled in disgust.—and eventually found a small ‘study group’ run by a committed and knowledgeable individual, offering more substance for much more reasonable prices. In fact, the phenomenon of hard selling has exploded in Israel in recent years and, although it is especially prevalent in the area of financial services, it is very widespread.
Everyone has their own pet peeves, but I hear many people complaining bitterly about phone calls to them, at home in the evening or at work during the day – in which they are blasted by recorded messages, almost always seeking funds for a supposedly worthy cause. Personally, I find these easy to deal with and have become adept at responding by disconnecting within a second or two. Much worse than the recorded messages are the live ones, in which real people solicit donations for organisations of every stripe. Many of the organisations are well-known and entirely legitimate, others belong to the rapidly-proliferating ‘chessed industry’, which is one of the primary growth sectors in the burgeoning Haredi economy.
There are two separate issues here. The first is the difficulty in distinguishing between the genuine and the fraudulent, and hence how – or whether – to respond. The second is that even if the cause is worthy, who gave these people the right to “pursue me into my home and attack me there”?, to quote a rabbi friend of mine who is neither stingy nor unsympathetic. He is fully cognizant of his halachic and moral obligations – but also knows that other people have the same obligations towards him.
Arguably worst of all are the sharply-honed salespeople deployed by financial firms to sell you things you don’t need, at exhorbitant prices. Two recent examples from personal experience: the banks have excess funds and phone to sell me money (i.e. offer me loans). I have learnt to cut into the sales pitch and ask “what rate of interest you are charging?” When it turns out to be in the order of prime plus nine or ten percent, I tell them to tell their bosses that this absurd and acceptable and that’s that.
But the insurance salespeople can’t be stopped at all. Their offers of wonderful policies that will protect you against an array of awful threats, but that are available for only a few more days, as well as their ability to rattle off facts and figures like a machine gun, are highly disconcerting. There is only one response that can work – JUST SAY NO. Always, to all of them. Eventually, they will drop you from their computerised databases and you will have to decide, by yourself, whether and what to buy and to whom to give charity.
Maybe it’s a small thing in the context of dysfunctionality at the national and global level, but it’s a big thing for an individual person – and it’s the only thing that everyone can and should do.