Selling Fear, Greed, or Both

speaker in a lecture hall

Recently I received multiple unsolicited copies of a new book “The Holy Grail of Investing” written by none other than motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Not only was I surprised to get so many copies of the same book, but I also learned that Tony Robbins is now in the financial industry.

When I picture Robbins, I tend to think of sports-arena-sized crowds and “You can do it!” messaging. But after a little Googling, I discovered this is his third financial book since 2016. It would seem that personal improvement and financial planning are starting to overlap in a Venn diagram. But is that a bad thing?

Across social media and YouTube, there are no shortage of pundits, professional or otherwise, offering financial “advice.” Don’t get me wrong; I believe everyone should have a vested interest in their money. It’s important to understand concepts like compounding interest and the time-value of money. I congratulate writers focused on educating readers about these concepts. But my sense is many of these “gurus’” acquire and grow their income not on the education they offer, but on the number of eyeballs they attract.

For example, consider Robert Kiyosaki, author of the “Rich Dad Poor Dad” personal finance books. It’s likely you’re aware of these books, as they’ve reportedly sold more than 32 million copies since the first book was published in 1997, according to CNBC. What you may not know is Kiyosaki’s track record is littered with bankruptcies, poor financial advice and expensive seminars.

Today he’s on social media, where we can travel back in time and track his forecasting. His X (Twitter) profile shows no shortage of political platitudes, bitcoin predictions and the word “CRASH” in all caps repeated dozens of times. While he may be an expert at marketing and selling his books, his gains come when you sign up for one of his many seminars, not when you make sound financial decisions.

Another example is author Harry Dent. An investment fund manager and publishing company owner (which should be a huge red flag unto itself), Dent wrote a New York Times bestselling book, “The Great Depression Ahead,” in 2009. His follow-up, “The Great Crash Ahead,” in 2011 suggested the Dow would begin plummeting in 2012, reaching an ultimate bottom sometime between 2019 and 2023.

Instead, the Dow Jones doubled in that timeframe.

That didn’t stop Dent from publishing many more doomsday books. From “The Demographic Cliff: How to Survive and Prosper During the Great Deflation of 2014-2019” in 2014 to “The Sale of a Lifetime: How the Great Bubble Bust of 2017 Can Make You Rich” in 2016, you must admire his ability to be so confidently wrong.

That’s the issue I have with financial writers: their intentions are not to improve your finances, but rather to sell you their products. They’re incentivized to sell more books, seminars, TV ads etc., and nothing sells quite like panic and despair. Unfortunately the subject of finance offers fertile soil for this particular brand of snake oil. It’s relevant to nearly everyone, constantly changing, and fundamentally important. For these reasons, people tend to pay attention. Plus, money tends to be deeply emotional.  Whether worried about the upcoming crash (fear), stressed about retirement (despair) or even celebrating a winning stock pick (greed), people are engaged by this topic.

For those who make money from attention, engaged viewers are a goldmine. While some of their advice may be meaningful, the rest is at least bad and at worst flat-out dangerous. Because their goal is attention, the more outrageous they are, the more attention they receive. As such, they prey on emotion. Do any of these approaches seem familiar?

  • Going out on a limb, making predications—the more outlandish the better
  • Promising to make people rich
  • Making precise predictions—like about timing booms and busts—while offering numbers and targets to focus readers’ attention
  • After these don’t come true, writing another book and hoping people forget the prior publication
  • Flipping one’s narrative when necessary (readers have short memories)
  • Using buzzwords, scare tactics and a sense of urgency
  • No matter what, promising profits (in the future) by following their advice

Why do people fall for this nonsense? Like with cigarettes, people are hooked on something that causes nothing but harm. But unlike with cigarettes, these publications and videos don’t come with a warning. Can you imagine if books were printed with an author’s track record on the cover? How would that change our trusted sources?

Negativity attracts people and forces them to stay “connected,” watching out for the dangers. Pessimism is like a virus. If fear drives consumption, pumping fear out is a great way to sell books, newsletters, subscriptions and speaking engagements, and even get airtime on financial news programs. But it engrains bad investor behavior and is a disservice to readers or investors. It promotes turnover or activity, which financial companies profit from in the form of commissions and transfers.

Real financial advice is not fear-based or designed to scare you. Rather it simplifies the complex. It helps you clarify what you want and offers steps on how to get there. A quality advisor should illustrate your options and capabilities, not scare you with impending crashes. They should help you navigate uncertainty, walk in courage and move forward in investing.

Work with people who make you more confident in the future, not less. Real financial advice is all about helping people make wise choices with their resources.

As financial author Richard Bernstein once said, “The reason ‘guru’ is a popular word is because ‘charlatan’ is so hard to spell.”

Mute the volume when financial promoters start selling their gospel, and remember that those who do the most talking often have the least to say. Work with a financial advisor who wins when you win, and let them build a plan that works for you.

Steve Booren

Steve Booren is the Owner and Founder of Prosperion Financial Advisors, located in Greenwood Village, Colo. He is the author of Blind Spots: The Mental Mistakes Investors Make and Intelligent Investing: Your Guide to a Growing Retirement Income and a regular columnist in The Denver Post. He was recently named a Barron's Top Financial Advisor and recognized as a Forbes Top Wealth Advisor in Colorado.

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