Have you ever met the crazy conspiracy theorist who is convinced that a well-executed and malevolent plot lurks behind most events? These were the people whose eyes bugged-out during Y2K, who are convinced that Apollo 11 never landed on the moon, that the World Trade Center was actually blown up by the United States to garner support for invading the Middle East, and the list goes on. The conspiracy thread has woven a thick yarn throughout the ages. It would be worthy of a good belly laugh if it weren't for the sick feeling you get when you realize that some people actually believe that stuff.
There is one conspiracy theory, however, worthy of your attention: Wall Street doesn't want you to know that their industry is a sham. For Wall Street, the hypnotic malaise they cast over the unknowing investor is nothing less than an $11 trillion dollar shell game. Their gambit makes the baccarat table at the Bellagio look like the neighborhood lemonade stand.
And like any good shell game, they keep the pea moving so you never really understand what just happened. Hideous mutual funds vanish into thin air leaving only winners so that fund companies can claim their funds are leaping tall indexes in a single bound. High fees slip out the back-end of your account while you lie in bed asleep at night, thinking they got your back. And how about that reporting? It's so convoluted you would have to be a Nobel Laureate in economics to even know what you made—or lost—after fees and taxes in any given year.
Speaking of Nobel Laureates, fortunately there are a few that have been paying attention: Harry M. Markowitz, Merton H. Miller, William F. Sharpe, and Nobel candidate Eugene Fama, not to mention other notable luminaries such Princeton professor and author Burton Malkiel, John Bogle the founder of Vanguard, and William Bernstein, the acerbic author and truth teller. If you haven't yet familiarized yourselves with their findings, the time has come to do so. They've blown Wall Street's cover in reams of research. Never mind that they conclusively demonstrate that low-cost indexing beats active management by a long shot, or that the buy, hold, and rebalance style of investing trumps the vein-popping practices of Jim Cramer and crew.
Worse yet, the good guys' PR campaign is weak. While they stutter in the corner, Wall Street is rolling out eloquent waves of hypnotic media, which roll over us as in a tsunami of minute-long TV ads, billboard artistry, and heart-grabbing radio spots. Each makes you want to pull out your hanky, pick up the phone, and call your mom to say you love her.
Who cares about facts when Smith Barney speaks? Why not talk to Chuck? He sure seems like a nice guy. His name is Chuck. Have you ever met a mean Chuck? Or what about the TD Ameritrade guy, Sam Waterston. He played stalwart Jack McCoy on the NBC series "Law & Order." He sure cracked the code there, so he'll be the guy I can trust for my retirement, right?
Yes, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and other leading online brokers are excellent brokerages. For a fair, low price you can have excellent trade execution and fulfillment, as well as receive tremendous customer service and online reporting. But watch your pocket if you go to these firms for investment advice. Chances are they will roll out the four-color glossy print, full-court press, and slip you right into some mutual funds from their supermarket that drip, drip, drip away your hard earned savings in high fees and underperformance.
Conspiracy theories are for the birds. Facts are for the discerning. When it comes to Wall Street, the facts have been revealed by the best economic minds in the world. Are you listening?
Steve Beck is cofounder of MarketRiders, an online investment advisory and management service helping Americans invest for retirement. MarketRiders gives investors greater peace of mind knowing that they are leveraging the best thinking of Nobel laureates and the investing methods used by the world's most elite institutions and wealthiest families. MarketRiders is on the investor's side, helping reduce investment costs and risks, and increasing retirement savings.
Corrected 3/24/2011: A previous version of this article misidentified spaceflight Apollo 11.