James K.A. Smith has written extensively on how our hearts are—often unintentionally—formed by our habits. What investing habits are we participating in that may be subtly shaping our view of money?
In August of 1999, several friends endured the sticky Florida heat to help my wife Miska and I load our 16-foot Penske rental: one sofa, one chair, one beanbag, two mattresses, and assorted boxes of mishmash possessions. We nosed that yellow truck onto I-10 and lumbered west 1,638 miles to Denver. We knew we were moving to Colorado for Miska’s graduate school—but aside from our clarity on this singular detail, we were clueless. I had no idea what I would do for work or how we’d pay for rent and groceries. We had enough cash saved to make it maybe six weeks.
Years earlier, in college, a friend who’d started hawking mutual funds as a side gig pulled out glossy brochures and introduced me to investing. I scraped together every extra penny and committed $25 a month. I was mesmerized with this strange new world: dollar cost averaging, the compounding power of investing little bits over a long horizon, the possibility of owning part (a miniscule part) of mammoth corporations with only a few dollars. A few years later, I read Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Malkiel nipped my overheated hubris with his controversial claim that a blindfolded monkey tossing darts at a newspaper’s financial section could pick stocks as well as many experts.
This interest stuck with me, though, and after arriving in Colorado, every morning I scoured the Denver Post’s jobs section, circling everything related to finances or investing. I talked to two firms. The first invited me to their hub, their “office” in Denver’s Tech Center. The receptionist’s desk was empty, except for a phone that I’m not sure was plugged in. The waiting room had four identical, uncomfortable chairs against bare walls. I felt like I’d entered one of those scenes where unsuspecting people believe they’re in the doctor’s office, but they’re really participating in a psychology experiment. Is anything here real? Is someone watching me? Salmon-colored carpet stretched down the shadowy hall into dark, vacant space. When was the last time anyone actually walked down that hall?
The manager called me into the sparse interview room—a single table, 2 chairs, 2 pencils, blank cream walls, fluorescent lights—and commenced to extol their business. Their rise had been meteoric. The profit mind-blowing. I’d be a fool to not throw my body and mind at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had questions, and the manager artfully dodged each, offering grandiose visions and gibberish that didn’t add up. Sitting in that whitewashed room, I couldn’t imagine asking anyone to entrust their money to people who couldn’t tell the basic truth. Before I exited, the manager told me he’d follow up with an offer. Don’t bother, I thought.
My second interaction was with recruiters from a more polished firm. Everything was slick. Their materials were stunning, their energy alluring. They wore expensive suits, had impeccable haircuts, and flashed winning smiles. They exuded success. And money. They talked about how much money I could make, how powerful this money would make me feel, how they could teach me to sell, sell, sell! But no one said a thing about any responsibility to safeguard the clients’ trust. No one mentioned the possibility of any motivation other than profit. The only questions were how much money we could make and how fast we could make it. I knew I’d never entrust my dollars, much less someone else’s, to people who approached investing as a game of winners and losers without moral consequences.
Disillusioned, I scrambled to come up with another job idea because obviously these weren’t environments where I could work, at least not if I wanted to sleep with a clear conscience. I needed an idea fast because our checking account was dipping toward red.
And then I met a woman named Karen, a manager at a firm I’d heard of but knew nothing about. She didn’t try to sell me on anything, didn’t try to catch me in her golden web of opportunity. She asked me questions, was curious about my life. She told me she was looking for a few honest people to teach the business, people she could trust to do right by their investors. Working for the next few years with Karen, I discovered the two things that stoked her ire: failing to keep your word to a client or doing anything shady that betrayed the firm’s integrity.
This company held core ideals, all baked into their DNA. They structured pay in a way that removed incentives for brokers to push products that padded revenue but were not in the clients’ best interest. They encouraged us to treat each person—whether they wanted to invest $10 or $100,000—with dignity, never pressuring us to relegate low-margin clients to the side. When I left that job, I realized that never—not once—had I been asked to do anything that I felt was dishonest or unethical. I knew enough to know how rare this was, and I was grateful.
This isn’t to say that my employer was pristine or impeccable or that now twenty-two years later, I wouldn’t survey their corporate practices and investment philosophy with deeper scrutiny. However, those years revealed the often-seedy underbelly of much of the financial industry. We talk, as we should, about the need for discernment as we consider the companies in which we invest. However, we also need discernment around the companies we rely on to help us do our investing.
We all know that there are numerous schemers and tricksters out there, and everyone wants honest people handling our money. Nobody wants to sign up with the next Bernie Madoff. But I wonder if we’ve actually pondered long enough how the ethics of those who are guiding us toward financial decisions—those who are sifting and interpreting the information before it even gets passed to us—really matters. How does a financial advisor’s moral compass or conflict of interests or basic posture toward money and profit and the common good shape their guidance? Do they even recognize what their assumptions are, especially when those assumptions merely mimic the dominant investing culture? We need to be clear-eyed on the entrenched realities in the investing world so that we can discern whether or not those who are guiding us are actually worthy of our trust.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.