The poor Saint Anthony Foundation will have to sue Citibank to get its money back from what was purported to be a money-market fund. I found myself wondering why anyone thinks major financial institutions are worth trusting for advice.
In a sea of some 350,000 Citibank employees, how could any one of them feel any personal responsibility to do the right thing for an organization that just feeds and shelters homeless people.
And then there's Charles Schwab. Apparently the state of New York, which is suing Charles Schwab to get customer money back, has taped conversations with brokers who were misrepresenting the risk of these questionable auction rate funds.
What the tapes apparently reveal is that the brokers themselves, probably people in their twenties, had little understanding of how these securities actually functioned. It reminds me of the story of John Paulson, the hedge fund manager (no relation to Hank) who drew blank stares when he asked AIG executives what would happen if real estate values ever went down. Apparently forgetting 1992, these masters of the universe said they never considered it.
Paulson left the room and went on to make hedge fund history and $15 billion in one year selling AIG shares short.
So, one estimate is that making people whole at this point might cost Charles Schwab $150 million by the time the dust settles. That might seem like a lot of money until you recall that that's what their CEO was paid in just annual salary during the boom times. One would think that they would step up to plate and pay the money, but the way big companies work is that everyone in any way culpable doesn't want to admit it, especially if they made a lot of money at the time. Meanwhile, the public has to stoop to litigation to initiate any redress.
As if all this weren't enough, last week's report in The Wall Street Journal says it all. Analyst Brian Kennedy at Jeffries and Co. slapped a "sell" order on a company called CardioNet and was forced to quit.
What the article revealed was that sell recommendations, industry wide, represent only 8 percent of brokerage firms' advice to investors. "Buys" make up 53 percent and "holds" are 39 percent. I understand the "Hold," but what do they expect people to buy with if they're rarely told to sell anything. What a joke. Brian Kennedy now works for an analytical firm that is independent of the brokerage business.
What works best in the investment business has been described by U.C. Berkeley economist Andrew Rudd in his 1980s vintage book, "Modern Portfolio Theory." Those of us with a jaundiced view of the investment industry have concluded, after years of observation, that a broad mix of asset classes using mostly inexpensive index funds is all anyone needs.
This creates diversification and the experience of success when at least some classes are predictably winners. That we never know which ones will win next doesn't matter.
Balanced periodically, we'll be automatically buying lower-priced "losers" by taking a few chips off the table of the most recent cycle's winners. Most important, we will gain some smug satisfaction at having avoided the hysteria fueling an industry that thrives on fear, greed and lack of responsibility.