Mythical Money Myths

Chicklet-currency My job as critic of personal finance advice is made a lot easier if other writers concisely summarize their points of view in easy to digest and refute bullet points. It gets even better if the other writer is argumentative, taking a neatly delineated position on a question which I can contradict.

So when I saw that Free Money Finance yesterday posted a list of Money Myths, my heart leapt. And I was not disappointed. There were eight myths listed, with bullet point explanations and links to fuller arguments from previous posts. What could be easier?

By my scoring, one of the myths really is untrue, two are so subjective that it could go either way based on interpretation, and five are not myths.

The one actual myth is that “you can beat the market’s return consistently without taking any additional risk.” Assuming that by “you” is meant the typical person, then this is indeed false because consistently beating the market is something that can be done by only a tiny minority of people, almost all of them professionals.

The two subjective ones are “getting a higher return on investments is the best way to grow your portfolio” and “most people become wealthy through inheritance, a special talent, or some good fortune.” I am not comfortable with the general direction FMF is going with these two, but the definitions of “best way” and “special talent” are vague enough that I can’t really make the non-myth case.

Which brings me to the five true statements unfairly slandered as false.

Smart people are wealthier. As long as you are willing to interpret this to mean that they are on average wealthier, then this is certainly true. That does not mean that all smart people, or even most smart people, are rich, nor does it mean that all rich people are smart. But a randomly selected group of smart (or rich) people will be on average richer (or smarter) than the general population.

Free Money Finance supports the pro-myth argument on this by citing a particularly weak bit of junk science I discussed in July. (Since writing that post somebody sent me a working link to the paper discussed. It is worse than I supposed when I wrote the post.)

People who make higher incomes have a greater net worth. Of course they do. On average. Even The Millionaire Next Door takes as its base assumption that wealth is substantially driven by income and purports to discuss the determinants of wealth after it is taken into account.

This is really the same non-myth as above, since FMF supports the non-relationship between intelligence and wealth by conceding that yes, smarter people have higher incomes, but there is no relationship between income and wealth. That is the position taken by the author of the paper I just mentioned, but it is at odds with the actual data as provided in the same paper. (Income and wealth were found to have a correlation of 0.39. IQ and wealth came in at 0.16.)

Wealthy people drive expensive cars and live in expensive homes. Again, if taken as a literal absolute, that all wealthy people drive expensive cars, this is false. But I do not think that any reasonable person would understand the statement that way. Most people would take it to mean that there is a correlation between expensive car and house ownership and wealth, just as there is a correlation between smarts and wealth and income and wealth.

And does anybody really doubt that the average Mercedes or million dollar house owner is wealthier than the average American? There are more than enough rich Ford drivers and broke Porsche drivers to disqualify this as a hard if-then rule, but the relationship that a reasonable person would expect is certainly there.

When you give, you are hindering yourself financially. I suppose that the term “hindering” opens up some wiggle room, but the unalterable fact is that if you give away a dollar your are a dollar poorer. That does not mean that you should not do it, nor that giving away money does not bring non-monetary rewards.

Calling this a myth is really a religious belief. I have no problem with the idea that charity is doing God’s work, but the bastardization of that into a personal finance tip, that giving money away will make you materially richer, is bad money advice and likely poor theology as well.

A high income leads to happiness. FMF counters this saying that “a high income relative to those you know leads to happiness.” That is true, but hardly contradictory to the candidate myth. It is more of a clarification. Making more money may not make us as happy has we expect it will, but on the margin it does make us a little happier. If it didn’t we would all still be living in caves.

What all eight of FMF’s myths have in common is that they are intuitively appealing. Each is something that most would assume to be true if not told otherwise. And yet each is something that many of us would like to believe is false. Labeled as myths they reassure us that becoming rich is an attainable goal for all and something achieved by the wholesome and diligent rather than the especially talented.

FMF takes as motivation for the list that he is working on a speech to a group and is soliciting reader input. He ends by asking which of his myths are “something an audience would want to hear.” I think the answer to that is all of them, although the one about beating the market, the only unequivocally false one, is a bit of a bummer.

24 Comments

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 21, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    Very nicely done. I love a good “myth” heckle and I think you really nailed it.

    I did a “myth” heckle back in August based on the words of Jeremy Siegel you might find interesting. He wrote it in 2008.

    http://illusionofprosperity.blogspot.com/2010/08/jeremy-siegels-mythic-places.html

    “Myth: The crisis resembles the one that hit the U.S. savings and loan industry two decades ago, necessitating a multibillion-dollar government bailout.

    Reality: $8 Trillion Bailout”

    That’s just one of many myths he offered, lol.

  • By jim, September 21, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    You’re dashing the hopes of all the stupid people with low paying jobs who give all their money away.

  • By Frank2, September 22, 2010 @ 12:41 am

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/business/economy/20older.html

    Love to get your take on the personal finance aspects of that article.

  • By Patrick, September 22, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    Frank, I think you blew it on this one. It’s perfectly reasonable to interpret several of these statements as implying causal relations, and you can’t argue causality just by demonstrating correlation.

    The worst is where you attack “wealthy people drive expensive cars and live in expensive homes” by arguing its converse: that people who drive expensive cars and live in expensive homes are wealthy. This is a logical fallacy, pure and simple.

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 22, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    Patrick,

    “And does anybody really doubt that the average Mercedes or million dollar house owner is wealthier than the average American?”

    That’s what he said. Do you or do you not doubt it?

    I do not think the burden of proof is on Frank here. I think “reasonable doubt” is more than sufficient. If you doubt it then please offer a reasonable theory why he is wrong.

    Can you offer proof (or even a reasonable theory) that the “average” person lives in a more expensive house than the “average” wealthy person? That might be a good start. I’m stumped though.

  • By jim, September 22, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    Patrick, I don’t think Frank is arguing causality between the things, but just pointing out that there IS in fact correlation.

    FMF goes so far as to outright deny any correlation between income and wealth which is incorrect.

    I think both FMF and Frank have reasonable points about luxury cars. Most rich people don’t drive expensive luxury cars which is true but there is certainly a correlation between people who drive luxury cars and wealth. Neither is making an absolute statement or arguing causality.

  • By kitty, September 22, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    “Most rich people don’t drive expensive luxury cars”
    Has anybody actually calculated the percentage of rich people who drive expensive luxury cars?

    Also, wouldn’t think depend on the definition of rich? If you’ll consider people with assets in many many millions or billions, I’d imagine the majority of them would indeed drive luxury cars. Just a guess, I haven’t seen the official statistics. Have you? If you consider someone with only 1M net worth rich, then this may not be the case, but then a high percentage of these people may just be older people with paid off mortgage, life savings, and no real use for a luxury car.

  • By jim, September 22, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    Kitty, yeah good point. I think FMF is considering “wealthy” to mean millionaires. As we all know a million doesn’t go as far today as it used to.

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 22, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    kitty (& jim),

    “If you consider someone with only 1M net worth rich, then this may not be the case, but then a high percentage of these people may just be older people with paid off mortgage, life savings, and no real use for a luxury car.”

    For what it is worth, you very nearly described me. I retired very early and am simply living off savings.

    I do not consider myself “rich”. I do not have the long-term income to support a “lifestyle of the rich and famous”. That’s especially true now that real yields on safe investments are near zero.

    As you say, I have no real use for a luxury car. I drive a 14 year old Camry. I barely even have use for a car. The car has less than 80k miles on it and currently gets driven about 2k miles per year.

    Although my house is more expensive than the typical house in my area and I have more financial assets than most, I do not have the resources to live in a million dollar house (the property taxes and maintenance would hurt too much). I’m just not that wealthy.

    It is my intent to die relatively broke at a fairly old age as I exhaust my savings. In order to do that I need to be frugal. Not counting the financial help I’m offering my unemployed girlfriend to make a transition to a new career, I spent less than $20k last year. Hardly what most would consider rich.

    All I care about is free time though. Can’t put a price on that.

    I would also say that I could not be doing what I am doing now had I not followed the general tone of the millionaire next door type books. I have always been relatively frugal. I was driving a car well below my means (a Hyundai) when I invested in the company that retired me (30,000% return on initial investment).

    However, there’s a difference between general tones and silly myths to me. I do believe that it pretty much goes without saying that wealthier people tend to live in more expensive homes on average and they also tend to drive more expensive vehicles on average.

  • By Patrick, September 22, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    @Stagflationary Mark: I’m not arguing that any of the quoted statements are right or wrong. I’m just pointing out that Frank’s arguments are fallacious if one only makes the reasonable assumption that the statements are intended to imply causality.

    @jim: You raise fair points. I didn’t read the blog Frank linked to. I’m just commenting on his mode of argument.

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 22, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    Patrick,

    I’m pretty much with Jim on this. I’m not reading causality arguments in Frank’s statements.

    If Frank was arguing that wealthy people are wealthy because they live in expensive homes and drive expensive cars then I would very much agree with you. That causality argument would not hold up well at all to me.

    Only Frank can really know if that’s what he intended with his commentary, but I suspect it wasn’t. I can’t prove it of course. Only Frank knows for sure.

  • By Frankie, September 22, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    I’ll give you an example about wealth vs. rich.

    Couple “A” from a decently upper middle class Boston suburb: Husband had sold medical devices and made between 200 and 250k. His wife was a teacher who, when she retired, was making 72,500.

    Upon retirement they had only a house in Newton and 180k in a Roth. So little had been saved due to years of fancy cars, fancy dinner, fancy vacations and general high living.

    They sell the house in Needham for 800k, buy a 300k condo in Florida, they put the 500k from the house in an annuity and add in the wife’s pension of 2,450 a month plus two social security checks. They are now living in Florida with a monthly income of $7,200 a month?

    You can certainly live a comfortable middle class retirement on $7,200 a month with no housing expenses.

    Couple B – Husband owned a repair shop and the wife worked part time they made 110k in their peak year. But, living frugally they had managed to save +20K a year and had nearly 3 million when they retired.

    Many would say couple “B” is far wealthier and more worthy of praise. But, the question is what would you prefer? Would you want 40 years of high living while your young, followed by a comfortable retirement? Or, 40 years of privation followed by perhaps 15 years of indulgence?

    For me, I’d say couple A was rich and couple B was wealthly.

  • By Rob Bennett, September 23, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    The one actual myth is that “you can beat the market’s return consistently without taking any additional risk.” Assuming that by “you” is meant the typical person, then this is indeed false because consistently beating the market is something that can be done by only a tiny minority of people, almost all of them professionals.

    Actually, it is a myth that this is a myth.

    Anyone willing to look at valuations when he or she decides on his or her stock allocation can easily beat the market over the long term (by being out of it when it is overpriced and thereby earning far higher returns in far less risky asset classes).

    The entire historical record bears this out. Anyone who cares to can check. And it is not even possible for the rational human mind to imagine a circumstance in which this would not be so. Paying attention to valuations is paying attention to price. How could paying attention to price ever not be a good thing?

    The most dangerous myths are the ones that even the skeptics among us accept as true.

    Rob

  • By Frankie, September 23, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    Anyone who cares to can check.

    You proposed the idea – the least you could do is include a link to some documentation supporting your theory.

  • By Rob Bennett, September 23, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    You proposed the idea – the least you could do is include a link to some documentation supporting your theory.

    There’s a link at my name to my web site, Frankie. There are tons of materials there on the Valuation-Informed Indexing Model — 200 podcasts, four unique calculators, links to four Google knols, over 100 investing articles, scores of Guest Blog Entries.

    There’s only one part of this that is hard. That’s letting in the wonderful news that long-term market timing always works, that it is not even possible to imagine an alternate universe in which it would not work. All that long-term timing is is taking the price of what you are buying into account when buying it. The short version of the story is — We’ve been had!

    Think of it this way — If there were a single study showing that long-term timing might not work, don’t you think that the people promoting Buy-and-Hold would point us to it? Why has that never happened? It’s because no one has ever been able to create such a study. There’s only one reason why hundreds of millions are spent trying to persuade us not to time the market — the money in this field is in selling stocks and investors who do not know how to time the market are stuck going with a high stock allocation regardless of how bad an idea that is at the sorts of prices that have applied from 1996 forward.

    I hope I am not hurting your feelings. That is not my intent. I think people need to learn about this stuff. Our retirements are at stake. Given the economic crisis that was caused by our unwillingness to take price into consideration when buying stocks, I think it would be fair to say that a lot more than just our retirements are at stake.

    If you have questions about any of the materials, please just ask over at my blog. I suggest you start with the “People Are Talking” section of the blog (on the left-hand side of the home page of the blog). That’s where you’ll find 80 comments from big names and ordinary people endorsing these ideas. This isn’t just some guy who posts on the internet shooting his mouth off. This is the real thing. Good luck!

    Rob

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 23, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    “Actually, it is a myth that this is a myth.”

    You are wrong. Frank said…

    “Assuming that by “you” is meant the typical person…”

    It is 100% impossible for the “average” person to outperform the market. The market *is* the average person. It would be like saying that the “average” person can outperform the “average” person. It cannot happen. It is not possible.

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 23, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    It is certainly possible for a subset of people to consistently beat the market and Frank acknowledged that.

    It is not possible for everyone to consistently beat the market though. For every dollar that beats the market there must be a dollar that does not. That’s how averages work.

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 23, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

    One more thought Rob.

    I am partial to your timing/evaluation claims. Don’t get me wrong.

    Here’s a chart I made back about the time I turned bearish in 2004.

    http://illusionofprosperity.blogspot.com/2007/08/historical-dow.html

    Here’s an update to that chart I made recently.

    http://illusionofprosperity.blogspot.com/2010/08/stock-market-risk-analysis.html

    Although valuations are better now than then to some degree, we still face many other recent hurdles that do not have a long-term history. Take the trade deficit. That’s not always been with us.

    http://illusionofprosperity.blogspot.com/2010/06/spending-power-vs-trade-deficit.html

  • By Rob Bennett, September 24, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    It is not possible for everyone to consistently beat the market though. For every dollar that beats the market there must be a dollar that does not. That’s how averages work.

    Thanks for the supportive words you offered in your third comment and for the appropriately challenging words you offered in your first and second comments, Mark.

    We once lived in a world in which people got around by horse and buggy. Then the human mind invented the car. A lot of the people in the horse and buggy industry were upset. They said: “This isn’t natural! Everyone knows that you cannot get around in a car! You get around with a horse and buggy! This car business is impossible! It cannot be!”

    All new things are new, by definition. When the entire society learns of a better way to invest, the entire society “beats the market.” They don’t beat the new market. They beat that old market, the one that existed when they all were investing ineffectively. Valuation-Informed Indexing is the new model. it is BETTER than Buy-and-Hold. It benefits every single investor. Every single investor does better when they are all investing effectively than they do when they are all investing ineffectively. Stock investing is NOT a zero-sum game.

    How are these benefits created? From productivity. The stock market is the mechanism by which we reward companies that are serving our needs and punish those who are not. When we permit people to learn the realities of investing, the rewards will begin going to the companies that deserve them rather than to those that do not. This benefits us all. This is what free-market capitalism is all about.

    I’ll give an example. Stocks were overpriced by three times in the late 1990s. Each investor who had $100,000 in his portfolio was being led to believe that he had $300,000 in his portfolio. THIS AFFECTED ALL HIS SPENDING DECISIONS. This guy spent more on vacations than he would have had he known the accurate numbers for his portfolio value. He bought bigger houses. He bought newer cars. And on and on.

    That means that companies that made luxury cars were being rewarded in ways that they would not have been rewarded had the market been functioning properly. And companies that made low-priced cars were being driven out of business because they could not compete with the luxury guys receiving so many unearned rewards. Buy-and-Hold is a huge wealth-destruction engine that has been eating away at the productivity of our free-market economy for years now.

    I am proposing that we change this. I am proposing that we let people know the ACCURATE value of their portfolios at all times. This means that people will be able to engage in effective financial planning. We will not see the millions of failed retirements that inevitably follow from promotion of a Buy-and-Hold approach. We will not see the economic crises that inevitably follow. We will not see the wasted money on government bailouts that inevitably follow from the economic crises.

    Permitting people to learn how to invest effectively is a win/win/win/win/win, with no possible downside. It takes the entire market value dramatically upward. It rewards EVERY investor. There IS such a thing as a free lunch — it is what follows when we learn new and better ways of doing things. The invention of the car was a free lunch for all of us. So was Shiller’s discovery in 1981 that long-term timing always works and in fact is required for any investor hoping to have a realistic chance at long-term investing success.

    Rob

  • By Stagflationary Mark, September 24, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    Rob,

    “When we permit people to learn the realities of investing, the rewards will begin going to the companies that deserve them rather than to those that do not.”

    Oh how I wish that would have been what most people were thinking over the last few decades. Instead, in 2004 my mailbox was filled with 0% teaser rate mortgage offers under the mistaken assumption that real estate only goes up in price and at any price. Citigroup was a top holding of mine at the time. I sold it and every other stock I owned. Let’s just say it was not what modern portfolio theory said to do.

    Now we reward all that failure with massive government bailouts. That behavior should have not existed. It was all based on unsustainable exponential growth. Since “investors” were willing to pay premium prices for homes (over the cost to build them), home builders were more than happy to keep cranking them out and banks were more than happy to “innovate” exotic loans.

    Like you, I am clearly a believer that no asset is good at any price. Price matters.

  • By Rob Bennett, September 24, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    Price matters.

    Thanks for the friendly back and forth, Mark. It’s refreshing.

    Rob

  • By Patrick, September 28, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    @Stagflationary Mark: I don’t seem to be making myself clear here. What I’m saying is this: arguments based only on correlation can’t possibly prove assertions of causality. If one interprets the quoted “myths” to be assertions of causality, which I think is quite reasonable, then Frank’s arguments, based only on correlation, are futile in the sense that one can agree entirely with all of Frank’s arguments and still conclude that the myths are false.

    To be clear: I do not think Frank was arguing causality. Just the opposite: I think he has interpreted all the “myths” to be statements of mere correlation, which are easier to prove.

  • By Paul, January 12, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    Most very wealthy are in fact driven around in vehicles they do not own much like the very poor

  • By Professor Lembach, March 11, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    Statistics are worthless in any specific case (great white sharks usually don’t bite humans, but are you going to go tickle one?), and certainly not predictive in any useful way. The patterns they pretend to discern appeal to our simian brains, but they tell almost nothing of the world.

    There’s also a great deal of subjectivity involved: what exactly defines “smart”? What is the precise definition of “happy”? Self-reporting? How can that be compared between individuals?

    A large number of people financed their expensive cars with make-believe equity from their expensive homes, and now are clearly revealed as neither clever nor wealthy.

    Rob – your own example proves that there is no “free lunch.” How can “the invention of the car was a free lunch for all of us” if it ruined the horse and buggy market? Not to even mention the environmental and political costs of fossil fuel use.

    “I am proposing that we let people know the ACCURATE value of their portfolios at all times.” How could anyone have all the necessary information to provide such an accurate assessment, of anything? Human minds don’t work like that. There’s always some information unavailable to us (yes, always).

    “The stock market is the mechanism by which we reward companies that are serving our needs and punish those who are not.” Who is “we”? Stockholders and consumers have very different and even contradictory aims: high profits for stockholders, low prices for consumers. No prize for deciding whose needs are considered primary.

    And please to be telling me what luxury car manufacturer rose and what economy car manufacturers fell in the 1990s? Cadillac tanked right along with GM, key-reeckt? It was foreign competition and poor labor policies that destroyed the American automotive industry, not “Buy-and-Hold”. By the way something, as in most cases, “the market” was well behind the curve on reacting to those failings.

    You’ve borrowed a trick from the radical evolutionists, but instead of replacing God with impartial Nature, you’ve inserted an all-powerful, all-knowing STOCK MARKET!

    Seriously, how can you discuss the state of modern finance without any mention of monetary policy or taxation or free trade or a myriad of other factors that constantly change and alter the economic environment?

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