Fat or thin, the width of a document should never determine its value, writes James Lonie
ASIC's mandated mission is to promote the confident and informed participation of Australians in the financial system. I wish it good luck - it will need it.
I'm not trying to be a wowser. I really like the sound of informed decision-making. It rolls off the tongue well and pushes all the right buttons: independence, freedom, self determination. It's the stuff that great movies are made of but, unfortunately, it's a silly basis for regulating the real world financial services industry.
The masters of the financial universe that brought us credit default swaps were probably better informed than me. I'd hazard a guess that they had a bit more economic theory and practical experience under their belts. Well, if all that informed participation at the top didn't help them, what chance have I got?
How do I make an informed investment decision between two equities funds by looking at two offer documents? Seriously, I like the one with the red cover and nice pictures, even though the other guys have such a cool name... Anyone who thinks I can spend 10 minutes reading 10 pages and make an informed investment decision has seriously overestimated my capabilities.
Investing is tricky. Not even Mr Buffett knows what's going to happen next. But, even if there are a few geniuses or clairvoyants among us who do, they're not going to share their financial secrets with a nincompoop like me. (If you're one of the geniuses, please let me know if the official rate is going up or down and when. Please tell me what the USD/AUD rate is going to look like next week or the price of a barrel of sweet Texas crude tomorrow morning.)
When it comes to investment decisions, for most of us, it's pitch black and we're strapped into the economic rollercoaster that's going a bit faster than full tilt and hopefully whoever's in control (if anyone is - it's hard to see, it's so dark) will tell us when it's time to get off.
Don't just take my word for it, have a look at your own super. I'm sorry to be the one to break the bad news but, let's face it, if your investment adviser knew how to turn lead into gold would she be advising you? I don't think so. She'd be reclining on the back of her 100 foot motor yacht in the Mediterranean, throwing back Bollinger and scoffing Beluga by the ladleful.
We're all cranky that we've lost money. Is it the fault of the fat prospectus? That confusing, incomprehensible obese document? Well, I've checked the stats really, really carefully. You know what I found? There's zero correlation between the number of pages in an offer document and investment performance. Fancy that, no correlation. Defies logic doesn't it? Yep, you can make money from a fat prospectus and lose it on a skinny one.
And the net return is what I'm really interested in when it comes to my super. You see, for me, it's all about the money. It can't buy me love but I'm investing my retirement savings not looking for a meaningful relationship with an adventurous outdoorsy Piscean.
What's the bottom line look like? That's what I want to know. (Note to my fund manager: skip the challenging year bit and just tell me how many sizes my super pants have shrunk.)
In case I haven't been blunt enough already, I don't want to make informed decisions. I want to make profitable investments.
The legislators and regulators just don't get it. Take fees. ASIC is very down on fees. Me, I just don't care about them. I'll take a 1 per cent increase in my net return rather than no fees, every day of the week, every week of the year and every year I'm still investing and not senile. (If you haven't been backpacking recently, here's a tip: next time you're overseas don't use the money changers with "no fees" - their spreads are huge and their rates rubbish.)
That's why I just don't care about the fees. You pay peanuts, you get marmosets. I'm so generous, I don't have a fee limit. If it's a percentage of my net return over a hurdle, I want to pay a whopping fee. Please, charge me.
But turning back to informed decision-making, I know that the government and regulator aren't serious. If that was really their goal, it would be too easy. You want to become a client of Opes Prime? No problem, first just explain the difference between a margin loan and a stock lending agreement. You want informed decision-making? The only investments left would be the Under The Bed Zero Coupon Bond.
"But the public and investors can't understand the fat prospectus they think he's too long and complicated!" I hear you say. I like you a lot for just having read this far, so don't make me have to reassess my opinion. It's no surprise that investors want interesting, shorter documents with fewer financial terms. My kids want toffee apples just before going to bed. You guessed it, they have to learn to live with disappointment.
The fact is that informing yourself is not a spectator sport. It's hard work and takes a long time.
My suspicion is that this informed decision-making is just the blame game frocked up. An investor loses money? Don't blame the government/regulator/financial adviser - you chose the junk yourself.
But the wooden stake through the heart of informed decision-making is that even if I do make an informed decision, that won't stop me making losses. And if minimising losses and maximising gains isn't the objective of the regulation, why not? Why is the journey (informed decision-making) more important than the destination (we all make money)?
So Kevin, let's focus. Let's come up with a new goal. What about making as many Australians as possible financially independent? Fat (in a fiscal sense) and happy Australians - that's what we want.
Have we got a deal? You come up with a smart new goal for ASIC. I'll have a word to the fat prospectus, get him on a diet and to a couple of spin classes, maybe drop a couple of kilos around the love handles. But if you're expecting Jennifer Hawkins and soaring investment returns, you're dreaming.
James Lonie is a partner at Henry Davis York