Two prime investing pitfalls: Inevitable ignorance vs induced ignorance
Ignorance is regarded as rational when the cost of information and "finding out" exceeds the benefits. This is especially true in situations where it would be a waste of time to learn about the particular issue.
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A classic example of this would be in general elections, where one vote really does not count much. Clearly, however, if everyone thinks this way, there is a problem, but the fact remains that rather than poring over election promises and campaigns for hours, you would do better to invest the time learning more about and managing your portfolio of assets.
The two faces of investor ignorance
In the world of money, with its countless traps, endless alternatives, conflicts of interest and shady dealers, ignorance is probably less rational than in any other context. However, investors have to contend with two associated problems, which I would term inevitable ignorance and induced ignorance.
Inevitable ignorance arises because it is just not possible to know everything about your investments. Clearly, the amount known varies very substantially between investors, due to huge disparities in experience, education, the amount of time people are able and willing to devote to their money, and so on.
However, everyone is ignorant about some aspects of their own investments and of the industry. For instance, nobody knows all there is to know about every company on the New York Stock Exchange, let alone those in France, China, Brazil and the rest of the world, developed, developing and in between. Not to mention, who could possibly know about the management and future prospects of all those thousands of funds out there, ranging from equities, to bonds, to futures and options, to alternative investments and certificates of deposits (CDs)? (Consider yourself a beginner? Need to brush up on the basics? Start with Why You Should Understand The Stock Market.)
Sadly, the wheelers and dealers of the industry are fully aware of this and therefore create ignorance quite deliberately in order to sell things that people would not buy if they were fully informed. It is well documented in the marketing literature that people take advantage of rational ignorance by increasing the complexity of a decision.
The rogues in the investment industry exploit both rational and irrational ignorance by ensuring that products are either so numerous and/or available in so many combinations and permutations that buyers are overwhelmed and find it too much trouble to make an informed decision; they just take their chances and, at worst, way too much risk.
To be fair, some of this complexity is inherent to the products and markets themselves; there are a lot of people selling a lot of things that are not particularly easy to understand. People often don't like having to think and worry about money, so they leave it to others who do not always behave ethically, and who themselves may be ignorant. In the case below, we have a combination of the above factors leading to continued ignorance. (For an additional on dishonesty in the market, check out The Rise of the Rogue Trader.)
An "Information Brochure" for Certificates
Precisely because of widespread financial ignorance, advisors and brokers in Germany are obliged to provide a certain type of brochure with certificates and other investments. These are along the lines of what you get with medicine, and the documents are termed just that, "Beipakzettel" (package brochure). Similar to what you get with pills, information is to be provided on the risks and opportunities, as well as cost and taxation implications.
A study performed in Sept. 2011, however, revealed that this measure does not help much. For starters, there are no guidelines as to who is to provide the brochures, so it usually ends up being the seller.
For the study, a tabloid newspaper article, which is generally considered very understandable, was compared to the financial product brochures for bonus or caped-bonus certificates; they were found to be barely comprehensible. The long, unfamiliar words, complex sentences and clumsy grammar left readers totally perplexed. The literature for the major banks tested varied, but overall the results were extremely poor.
Part of the problem, explained one consultant, was that the providers found themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, they had to provide sufficient information in three pages to convey the relevant issues. On the other hand, they wanted to ensure they were covered legally. This resulted in "legalese" formulations designed to be legally watertight, but which severely reduced the readability and comprehensibility.
The moral of the story is that even well-intentioned efforts to reduce rational investment ignorance, by making it easy and rational to be informed, can easily fail. So what does this say about bad-faith attempts to sell lousy investments through a smoke screen?
The Bottom Line
In this context, the regulators really do have an important role to play, but it needs to be done better than in the above case. Banks have to resolve the legally watertight vs. readability trade-off. Somehow, they need to get the message across clearly, but without opening themselves up to legal problems.
As always, investors must find out as much as they can, including who to trust, but they also need to understand and accept the limits of what they and others can and do know, and act accordingly. It is certainly advisable to buy only what you understand or trust, but as implied above, eliminating everything you don't understand fully, may mean burying your cash in the garden, which is not a great investment either. (For more related articles, check out Financial Regulators: Who They Are And What They Do and Information Overload: How It Hurts Investors.)