Too Complex For Their Own Good?

This week on my Forbes post, “Don't Outsmart Yourself Financially,” I took issue with an article written by Nobel-winning economist, Paul Krugman, for his rationalizing of the enormous debt load of our country.  But while economists have and will wax eloquent on the past, present and future utilizing brilliant theories well beyond the bounds of common sense (and often practical application), we have no such allowance in the realm of personal finance.  Indeed, YOU SHOULD NEVER PURSUE A STRATEGY YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND.

Here are a collection of financial strategies that sound impressive but may be too complex for their own good:

  • Equity Indexed Annuities—EIAs are actually fixed annuities, but if you ask one of their passionate purveyors[i] how they manage to offer market upside with none of the downside, I hope you’ve set aside some time because you’re in for a very long conversation…if the agent even knows enough about their inner workings to  educate you.  In short, insurance companies buy bonds with your investment and use the interest payments to purchase stock options to materialize the upside of the stock market.  They hedge their bets—I mean, positions—by handcuffing you with some of the biggest (7%, 9%, even 12% and higher) and longest (10, 15 or even 20 years) surrender charges in the business.  Like too many financial products, these instruments are sold, not bought, and I don’t recommend tying up your money in one of these financial experiments.
  • Life Insurance As Primary Retirement Vehicle—There’s a wow-inducing sales system (called the LEAP system) that was built for life insurance agents seeking to increase their sales in one of the best-paying commission products on the market, permanent life insurance (whole life, variable life and universal life).   After an hour of mind-numbing chart-flipping, you’ll be ready to divert your 401k savings into a brand new life insurance policy![ii]  But unless you make over $250,000 per year or have millions in net worth, you simply don’t need to worry yourself with the variables in permanent life insurance.
  • “Option Arm” Mortgages—The landscape of mortgage products has dwindled significantly from the pre-crash days when you could literally pick the payment on your mortgage in the now infamous option arm mortgages.  A mortgage broker in Pennsylvania at one point pitched me on a joint collaboration in which I would lend financial credence to his recommendations for clients to take on these crazy mortgages and they would, in turn, invest all the extra money they didn’t have to pay towards their mortgage in accounts I would manage.  I laughed at first, thinking he was kidding.  Then I realized he wasn’t.  Especially with rates as low as they are today, there are very few reasons to take on any mortgage other than a fixed mortgage, but there is NEVER a reason to take on a mortgage that increases your debt instead of paying it off.
  • Exchange Traded Funds—This one may surprise you, and I should be quick to point out that ETFs can be very wisely and properly utilized in a diversified investment strategy.  But you’d better fully understand what you’re buying.  Much like a mutual fund, an exchange traded fund is a single investment representing a basket of securities.  For example, you can purchase an ETF that will track the S&P 500 index or commodities like gold or oil.  But the question remains, what exactly is inside of the ETF?  Sometimes it is actual investments, (like stocks in gold mining companies, for instance) but often the underlying properties in an ETF are derivatives—options or futures—and subject to market forces beyond the commodity or index itself.  If you don’t understand how the investment is built, you may be in for a surprise when you see how it actually reacts to market stimuli.

There are many other examples out there, and I’d love to hear what you’ve run into in your financial journey.  Please share your good or bad experience, or ask any questions, in the comments section!


[i] Why so passionate, you ask?  These products have some of the biggest commissions in the business.  Up to and over 12%!

[ii] I worked with one agent in a prior professional life who regularly pitched a “Roth Look-A-Like,” an alternate retirement savings vehicle designed to give you all the tax advantage of a Roth IRA, and more…except that it was nothing more than a whole life insurance policy.  I saw one unfortunate 20-something guy who wasn’t even married and had no dependents buy a look-a-like when his money would’ve been better served in a true Roth.

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