Hidden incentives dangerous

David MoonBlog

At a recent “Invest in Women” conference in Atlanta, radio host Ric Edleman was speaking to a group of investment helpers. Edleman’s presentation was titled “Digital Assets: How to Use This New Asset Class to Gain More Clients and Assets – Even if You Hate Bitcoin.”

Among other things, Edleman advised his audience of financial professionals that they should spend $649 to get the newly created certificate in blockchain and digital assets offered by the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals.

By the way, the founder of the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals is … drum roll, please … Ric Edleman.

I might be a tad less skeptical of Edleman if the title of his presentation had had been, “Digital Assets: How to Make Your Clients More Money,” instead of “your clients are reading about Bitcoin and here is how you can make more money by pretending to like something you know is a bad investment.”

Incentives are powerful things, perhaps the most powerful factor in determining human behavior. Most people are strongly motivated by someone who can alleviate their fears or fulfill their desires. At least one of Edleman’s motives is to sell his crypto investing course. And he knows that a good portion of the attendees at his presentation were motivated to attract new clients and assets, even if it required advising people to buy something they hated.

Just as one should never ask a barber if he needs a haircut, when we visit the car showroom, we expect that the car salesman will recommend that we buy a car. We might even wonder if he makes more money depending on which car we buy. We know that on the front end.

Matt Damon hawking Bitcoin on his social media accounts is one thing; no one thinks he knows anything about investing. But when your professional investment helper recommends something, there ought to be a way to know if the recommender thinks the product is in your best interest or in his.

Sadly, not only does our industry not make it easy to distinguish between advice and a sales pitch, but firms also spend millions of dollars annually lobbying to keep in place regulations that make it easier for investment helpers to disguise a sales pitch with investment advice. That’s a shame and it is despicable.

Incentives are neither good nor bad. They simply are. Everyone has incentives. Your kids, priest, physician, spouse and dog are all motivated by something. The problem is hidden incentives. And that is a problem that, too often, is difficult to identify – especially when those incentives are intentionally hidden.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.