When I taught skiing at Sugar Bowl in the late 1960s, the director was Alex Brogel, who had been a teenager in Germany during World War II.
Pressed into service as a bulldozer driver who worked to build Hitler's mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, he had personal interaction with the detail-oriented Fuhrer himself, whom Brogel described as being "actually a pretty nice guy ... just a little crazy."
I thought about this extreme statement from a financial standpoint -- how investors often are prompted to believe what they want to hear. For example, in China today, more than $2.8 trillion is invested in collective pools of money known as "wealth management products" that, in some cases, promise 10 percent returns that will be "guaranteed." A minimum investment can be as low as $15, and you can remove funds with only a seven-day notice.
Most of this money is invested in construction and real estate, but investors are given no information as to which projects or how the money is disbursed. For obvious reasons, Chinese officials are starting to worry about a collapse and are considering the regulatory structure of other industrialized nations -- protections woefully absent in China.
With interest rates closing in on zero in the U.S. and negative rates in Europe (you pay to leave your money in the bank), the temptation to believe more fantastic claims of investment performance will become greater among those desperate to increase investment income while, at the same time, being protected against losses.
Not long ago, large ads appeared in Bay Area newspapers extolling an investment opportunity similar to the above-mentioned Chinese "opportunity." Several readers emailed me to ask if it was legit. Before I could even make a few calls for my own entertainment value, the ads disappeared. But the fact that companies like this get as far as they do tells us something about the world of those who want to believe what they hear.
In this country, real estate historically has been the sweet-and-sour pork equivalent of investment opportunity, offering a combination of huge success and abject failure. "Leverage," as they say, "works both ways." Second mortgages turned out to be the most vulnerable and have cost investors the greatest losses through the cycles of plunging real estate prices we have experienced over the past 30 years.
Real estate lending is a popular investment medium that has been seductive and profitable, but regulation is comparatively minimal, and some pools of mortgages have left investors with little information to carefully analyze.
In my experience, success in "seconds" came to those who knew something about real estate and who invested in specific mortgages after taking the time to learn as much as possible about the borrower.
Remember, a second-mortgage holder loses the entire investment if the property is liquidated for less than the amount of the first mortgage.
Anything that sounds too good to be true is probably just that. Stocks and bonds may promise less these days, but at least they are transparent, with known history, and together they offset each other's respective drawbacks and advantages.
Low interest rates, while a hindrance for bonds, can be positive for stocks as lower interest costs improve company profits.
As for private, opaque opportunities that fall under the radar of securities laws, a word to the wise is to avoid these investments often successfully promoted by charming, likable people for whom the term "confidence man" was invented. People like Bernie Madoff -- "nice guys" who are "just a little crazy" -- can ruin a lot of lives.