Personal Finance May 2009

Why I Fired My Broker

With his 401(k) in ruins, our correspondent visits investment gurus, hedge fund managers, and a freakish Arizona survivalist with one question in mind: How can the ordinary investor recover?
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Video: "The Con Game"

Jeffrey Goldberg tells Bob Cohn why he bought gold, stocked up on lanterns, consulted a survivalist—and finally fired his broker.

For most of our adult lives, my wife and I have behaved in the way responsible cogs of capitalism are supposed to behave—we invested in a carefully calibrated mix of equities and bonds; we bought and held; we didn’t overextend on real estate; we put the maximum in our 401(k) accounts; we gave to charity; and we saved, but we also spent: mainly on gasoline, food, and magazines. In retrospect, we didn’t have the proper appreciation for risk, but who did? We were children of the bull market. Even at its top, my investment portfolio was never anything to write home about. Its saving grace was that it was mine. And I imagined that when we did cash out, at 60 or 65, I would pass my time buying my wife semisubstantial pieces of jewelry and going bass fishing like the men in Flomax commercials.

Well, goodbye to all that. I took a random walk down Wall Street and got hit by a bus.

How am I sure it’s goodbye? The signs are rampant, but one has become stuck in my mind: a video of Richard Bernstein, the chief investment strategist for Merrill Lynch (sorry, I mean the Merrill Lynch division of Bank of America, which, by the time you read this, may be the Bank of America division of the United States Government), advising Merrill clients such as myself that one of the best financial strategies to adopt now would be to extend my “investment time horizon.”

“If one were to trade the S&P 500 for one day, the probability of losing money is about 46 percent,” Bernstein states. “However, as one extends that time horizon from one day to one month to one quarter to one year to 10 years, the probability of losing money decreases as the time horizon lengthens.”

To which I would add this observation from Keynes: “In the long run, we are all dead.”

This is what I heard Bernstein say: give up. You’re not going to make money on your investments in the next 10 years, or 15, or 20, so you should stop worrying about your portfolio and go to the movies like everyone else.

I called Bernstein and asked him if he was, in fact, advocating a form of Stoicism. He said I was misinterpreting his views. “This is not some sort of psychological compensation device. What I’m saying is that in looking for investment ideas, we should be looking over a five-, six-, seven-year time period. You have to give an investment strategy time to reach gestation.”

But my investment strategy gestated for 15 years. And then it died.

As I write this, the markets are back down to 1997 levels. In Japan, they’ve sunk to 1983 levels. I pointed out to Bernstein that 1983 was 26 years ago. The investor who bought Japanese equities in 1983 and held on to them has stayed absolutely flat. “That’s not correct,” Bernstein said. “That doesn’t take into account dividend payments.”

Even with all those munificent dividend payments, my net worth has dropped by a third, and new vistas of worry open up for me each day.

I’m not complaining, by the way, and not only because I have no right to complain. I make more money than most Americans. I will ungrudgingly pay more taxes if it means keeping people in their homes—even the schmucks in overleveraged McMansions. My wife and I are lucky. We have substantial equity in a small but perfectly nice house in Washington, D.C., a city that is now, among other things, America’s financial-services capital, which should help keep real-estate prices steady. I have a late-model minivan. Most important, I have a job (and in the thriving magazine industry, no less!). If I lose my job, then I’ll complain (at which point, of course, I’ll no longer have a public venue for my complaints). But for now, no whining: just confusion and bemusement and fear, along with an uncharacteristic sense of paralysis. In the past six months, I’ve bought and sold virtually no equities. And I rarely take the pulse of my 401(k).

I called a psychologist to find out what could explain this weird passivity. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize–winning innovator in the field of behavioral economics. He explained that my feelings of paralysis were to be expected.

“You no longer know the world you live in,” he said. “You played by the rules, the rules benefited you. The world functioned according to some regularities. Right now, it’s unclear what rules apply. There is a new regime. What seemed prudent earlier has disappeared. I’m surprised Americans aren’t more panicked. Americans seem to accept a level of insecurity in their lives that Europeans wouldn’t tolerate. Paralysis is one response to this level of insecurity.”

This might explain why my wife and I have taken no action to fix our finances. Although it’s also the case that we haven’t heard from our Merrill broker in nine months. The last time he called was well before the day in September when the government encouraged the shotgun sale of Merrill to Bank of America, to keep Merrill from collapsing.

I should have seen the signs of dysfunction much earlier. It was more than a decade ago that our first Merrill Lynch adviser put us in a company called Boston Chicken. A Merrill analyst described it as “the restaurant concept of the ’90s.” It went bankrupt in 1998. Only later did I learn that Merrill had underwritten the initial public offering for Boston Chicken stock, and so had an interest in selling the company to its customers. There were other brilliant pieces of advice—long-term “buy and hold” recommendations that emerged from the Merrill analysis factory: Qualcomm; Sun Microsystems; Nokia; and Citibank, of course, which has recently dipped as low as a dollar a share. The full-service trading fees at Merrill—$80, $100, $130, for modest chunks of stock—were high, but we were told that we were paying a premium for quality research.

In many cases, we were. Bernstein, the chief strategist, has actually been bearish for much of the past decade. Given his recent disposition toward market pessimism, I asked him why he didn’t tell Merrill’s clients to dump their equities seven months ago. “I said it as best as I could within reasonable professional standards,” he said. “I’m not going to yell ‘Sell, sell, sell!’ I’m not going to go out and be irresponsible.”

I imagine that many of Merrill’s clients are now wishing that Bernstein had been more irresponsible. Of course, even if he had said something, my financial adviser might not have relayed the message.

I haven’t depended solely on Merrill Lynch for advice. I believed I could find investments for myself. I stayed away from mutual funds because I couldn’t figure out who ran them. And I applied Warren Buffett’s famous dictum—Don’t buy something you don’t understand—to my trading, so I bought, in our Merrill Lynch account, such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble and Illinois Tool Works and Caterpillar, and these have been kind to us, until now. (I also bought the Internet company Ariba, because I heard about it from a guy who heard about it from a guy. It went up to about $1,000; I didn’t sell, of course, and now it’s at $8.) And every so often, I would follow the recommendations of the financial magazines, SmartMoney in particular, because for a long while I was an ardent consumer of financial pornography. No more. In the harsh light of recession, I find it hard to believe I listened to a magazine that, in August 2007, recommended American Express at $63 a share (a “conservative way to make hay from global credit-card growth”), which as I write this is selling for $13 a share; Wynn Resorts, $94 then, $20 now; HSBC, $93 then, $25 now; Washington Mutual, $36 at the time, seized by the government last September—rendering the stock worthless.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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