ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. – Best investment advice I ever got is 2,500 years old, came from the Awakened One, Buddha. He warned his disciples, and all of us investors down through the ages, with this psychological tidbit of financial wisdom:
"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."
Translation: Trust no one. Not even your guru! Trust only your powers of reasoning, your own common sense. The truth is not out there, never was, never will be.
But that was 2,500 years ago. No CNBC. No Exxon. No SEC. No-Spin Zone. No Abramoffs. No Internet. Buddha's followers only had to deal with noise in their heads. And that was tough enough. Ancient stories tell of monks reaching enlightenment only after decades meditating in monasteries.
Today we have modern Buddhas, newly Awakened Ones, like the Dalai Lama and Warren Buffett. But it's obvious from the current state of our financial markets, America's economy, and worldwide chaos, that things are much tougher. Trusting "only your reasoning your common sense" may not work, or take more than one lifetime.
Why? Because you're being brainwashed, massively, relentlessly, all day. Your brain is being manipulated and reprogrammed by powerful psychological forces. Who can you trust when your common sense may be nonsense, your reasoning irrational?
A few months ago we identified the 10 ways the "Wall Street Brainwashing Machine" is using sophisticated behavioral finance technologies to control the minds of America's 95 million investors.
Research from critics like Vanguard's Jack Bogle have longed warn that Wall Street and the financial-services industry are "skimming" one-third off the top of investors returns, substantially reducing your retirement assets. Some critics like Boston research firm Dalbar go further: Most investors make less than inflation, but are clueless because they're brainwashed to think otherwise.
So who is skimming a third from your returns? In Warren Buffett's recent annual letter to shareholders he pinpointed four layers of "Helpers" skimming investor returns. His story was entertaining, but he's far from complete. We went back for some clues in our earlier "Investing on the Planet of the Apes."
95 million controlled by just 1 million
The Planet of the Apes is a perfect metaphor for the way America's 95 million investors are being psychologically manipulated and controlled by a small cartel of less than one million people in and around Wall Street. For both that 95 million and the one million the stakes are huge, because $8.6 trillion is invested in mutual funds alone.
Going beyond Buffett's four layers of skimming "helpers" into the Apes Planet analogy you can identify not 4 but 20 interlocking layers, all of which cooperate directly and indirectly as part of this loose cartel. If you look over the landscape of the Planet of the Apes, here's how you'll see the Humanoids being ruled by several interrelated species:
Giant Apes. Capitalists ruling the Jungle through control of assets. Orangutans. Puppet leaders in power positions, controlled by Apes. Gorillas. Enforcers whose brute strength protects the Apes power. Chimpanzees. Masses of workers manipulated like the Humanoids. Flying Monkeys. New hi-tech species immigrating from Land of Oz.
So here's the new poll: Scan through the list. Use your sharpest "Buddha/Buffett brain." If you think any one of the 20 is directly or indirectly skimming part of your returns or if they contribute in some way to the skimming, add 5 points to your total. Print a copy of this column so you can pencil in the individual scores.
Then add them up (20 skimmers times 5 points each = 100 maximum), and e-mail us (firstname.lastname@example.org) your total:
Giant Apes: Rulers of the Jungle
Wall Street investment bankers: Huge bonuses while market below 2000 levels. Mutual fund company owners: Yale manager: "investors lose, managers win." Fund company portfolio managers: Average pay over $400,000 annually. Corporate CEOs: Buffet says executive income skyrocketing out of control.
Orangutans: Puppet Leaders
Politicians, Congress and the executive branch: Campaign donations assure no reforms. Securities & Exchange Commission: Favor industry insiders over investors.
Gorillas: the Enforcers
Special-interest lobbyists: Wall Street is largest political campaign contributor. Investment Company Institute: Fund industry insiders employ 100 lobbyists. Commissioned brokers: Most funds are "sold" thanks to upfront commissions.
Chimpanzees: Working Masses
Online brokers: Research proves "the more you trade the less you make." Pension fund managers: Tax laws help them personally make mega-bucks. Managers of 401(k) and 529 retirement plans: Hidden fees keep piling on. Professional financial advisers: Many favor products with high kickbacks. Mutual fund and stock-data trackers: Data often biased against investor. Securities analysts: Despite scandals, they still say 'buy' most the time. Mutual fund directors: Paid over $250,000 annually, still favor insiders.
Flying Monkeys: New 'Hi-Tech' Gorillas
Madison Avenue advertisers: Wall Street's main tool in brainwashing Cable news channels: Hot mad-money race making addicts of investors Ad-driven press and media: Advertisers subtly influence news content Behavioral-finance experts: Neuroscientists are brainwashing geniuses
Now please e-mail us (email@example.com) us your total (5 points each times 20 skimmers = 100 points max).
And one last request, pick the three that you think are responsible for skimming the most.
Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.