Many of Wall Street's elite firms were being required to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines to investors, according to media reports. The penalties are for alleged bad investment advice, courtesy of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from famed investor Warren Buffett goes: "Wall Street is the only place that people ride to work in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway."
I have been highly critical of the standard financial planning advice -- "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify" -- for a long time. Such guidance is often more a financial advisor's (subway rider's) sales pitch than a solid investment guide.
But while I think it's courageous that Spitzer slaps millions in fines on a few Wall Street firms for their bad investment guidance, I believe the investors who accepted that unsound advice have some responsibility, too. Isn't knowing the difference between good and bad advice part of knowing what you're doing?
The Difference Between Investing and Shopping
The problem is, most investors don't know how bad the standard investment advice is. This mantra of "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify" is followed by millions of investors -- who lost $7 trillion to $9 trillion between 2000 and 2004. Many are still following this bad advice today.
Not only did millions of investors lose trillions of dollars, many also missed the boom in real estate, oil, gas, and previous metals. Furthermore, despite investors' huge losses, Wall Street paid out some of its biggest bonuses in history.
However, investors should realize it's "buyer beware." Investing is different from shopping. If I go to Sears and don't like the tool or shirt I purchased, I can generally get my money back. When we go shopping, we expect value for our money. But when we invest, we do so in the hopes of making more money -- and knowing that we risk making losses. What would happen to the financial industry if brokers were sued every time a client lost money? The wheels of world commerce would grind to a halt.
My point is: The world is filled with honest people handing out bad advice. An example of honest bad investment advice is the standard one of "work hard, save money, get out of debt, invest for the long term, and diversify".
The world is also filled with biased advice, which is why people say, "Never ask an insurance broker if you need insurance, or a mutual-fund sales person if they recommend mutual funds." Furthermore, there are many crooks and con artists as well, who intentionally promote dishonest ventures.
Spotting the Difference
So while it's imperative that we have the Securities and Exchange Commission and a brave Attorney General such as Spitzer to enforce the rules, we, as individual investors, still need to be vigilant and personally responsible for the advice we receive and what we do with our money.
In my opinion, that means each of us needs to be responsible for our own financial education so we can tell the difference between good advice, biased advice, and crooked advice. If you can educate yourself to know the differences between those three types of advice, getting rich is easy.
Or, if you take investing advice from a subway rider, don't be surprised if you wind up on the subway.