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When investing, avoid the ‘articulate incompetent’


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Dear Mr. Berko:

I recently met a money manager who did not lose a nickel for his clients during the past 24 months. His brilliant computer programs and application of statistics and charts are amazing. He’s a renaissance man, so well-spoken and delightful to talk to on almost any subject, especially the market. He claims to know you and tells us he regards you as one of the most brilliant financial writers in the country. We’ve had a hard time finding a money manager, but we trust this man and are thinking of giving him our $175,000 portfolio. We have enclosed his track record. Could he be our guru?

E.P., Aurora, Ill.

Dear E.P.:

Admittedly, that’s an impressive track record, much better than Bernard Madoff’s. But this quack is a lying sack of swamp mud. And you should note that the performance numbers he has given you are “not audited.” In life, only intuition can protect you against the most dangerous individual of all, a person I call “The Articulate Incompetent.” You found one of them.

There are thousands of articulate gurus like this cad who believe they can sense fortune and danger. This sensitivity is a skill most of us believe only someone else can possess. And it leads to what I call the “Articulate Guru Syndrome.” After investors walk in lock step with the guru over the cliff, as millions of us have recently done, a new guru who points the way is thrust to the forefront with audacious claims that good folks like you really want to believe.

Yes, I know him. He can sweet-talk the devil to sing in a Baptist choir, and his stock market claims are blather wrapped in cheap baloney. Money managers seem to have more than their share of gurus and articulate incompetents. The following guidelines ought to help you.

Avoid money managers who use investment strategies that rely heavily on mechanical methodology. Computers don’t make investment decisions. Charts don’t make investment decisions. Statistics do not make investment decisions. People make investment decisions.

Avoid investment scholars. These guys can give you the economic statistics of any era, relate them to the performance of the Dow Jones industrial average and tell you why the market was up or down during that period. They have reservoirs of information that can predict the past with unerring accuracy, but that reservoir is empty as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard when it’s opened to look into the future.

Be sure your account is meaningful. If your account is small, find a small-sized management firm, or your account will only be a number on a computer printout. Big is not necessarily beautiful. Ask what mistakes the manager has made. If he has not made major errors, be careful, as he is probably getting close to perfecting the art of “going wrong with confidence.”

Don’t be impressed by advisers who claim highly successful performance records within the recent past. You might be giving money to a manager who is confidently riding the last trend and who will be last to admit the trend is ending.

Does he understand the “art of selling”? Ninety-two percent of the Street’s recommendations are on the buy side. There’s little competition for selling advice, which is the highest art form of investing.

Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 1416, Boca Raton, Fla. 33429 or e-mail him at malber@adelphia.net. © Copley News Service

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