Do you know what's in your portfolio? It may surprise you.
© Getty Images

Magicians get away with a lot. They saw people in half, pull rabbits out of black hats, and even swallow knives. Magic tricks captivate even the most cynical audiences, but everyone knows that behind the scenes, the magic show is only an illusion. While some of us simply accept the mystery, others want to learn about the science behind it. How was that trick executed? How were we fooled?

Not everyone knows there is another more damaging illusion happening in your portfolio and up until now, not enough people were curious to learn about this kind of wizardry. Following the 2016 election, a growing number of Americans want to know more about the intricacies of their investments. And it is because of the passionate way in which we are now discussing personal values across the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

How many of us instinctively say “yes” when asked, “Do you know what you are invested in?” When we take a deeper dive, however, we come to the realization that we don’t have as clear of an understanding as we may have initially thought. In a recent national poll, 72 percent of investors admitted they had no idea what is in their portfolio, even though 83 percent said their personal values were an important decision-making criteria when it comes to their investments. We think we know what we are invested in when we actually don’t.

 

It is not hard to imagine the violation that a Peace Corp volunteer might feel when they find out their portfolios are funding cluster bombs, or an environmentalist who learns their retirement is fueling leading polluters, or the devout teacher who discovers their retirement money is exploiting child labor. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they would be angry if they found out their money was being invested in ways that were contrary to their values.

As a society, more and more of us are choosing to vote with our dollars whether we choose to avoid buying a Canada Goose jacket or choose to only buy grass-fed beef. And in this heated political climate, individual investors are learning they cannot only vote with their consumption, they can vote with an even larger number of investing dollars.

The illusion in your portfolio hides more than just the contents of your accounts, it also hides fees. Most Americans actually have no real sense of what they pay for their investments. For example, seven out of 10 people participating in 401(k) plans think it’s free to invest in them. They don’t know that over the course of a career, a dual-earning couple gives up nearly a third of their investment return to fees. And for many Americans after their mortgage and car payment, their fund fees might be their biggest expense. Yet most people think they are completely free. Abra kadabra!

Who are the financial magicians behind these illusions? These “wizards” include many of those who develop, sell and regulate financial products. Look at what they have done with the most common of financial products — the mutual fund — an investment that 91 million of Americans have poured almost $20 trillion into. These funds have to disclose their holdings only four times a year (with dated data) burying key information of their disclosures in prospectuses with hundreds of pages. Ironically, regulators are so busy “protecting” investors that they fail to actually empower them.

Not so long ago, you may remember a similar illusion was revealed within the food industry. Today, we expect to easily learn more about the contents of the food we consume whether in the grocery store or even at restaurants. Some restaurants even compete on the amount of information they share to win customer trust.

Today, regulators in the financial world are too focused on writing rules around products versus around empowering the individuals who are consuming them to make educated choices. To be fair, it is a lot easier to pay attention to the caloric items on a restaurant menu than it is for them to understand how much they are paying in fees as a percentage of expected return. But as we learned in the case of labeling food it is better to start the process, even on a voluntary basis, and grow from there.

So as the financial industry engages in the tug-of-war over the fiduciary rule, where both sides are expending a ton of energy and political capital, I hope they will stop for second and focus on the individual investor and how to empower them with the right information to make thoughtful decisions. As consumers, if we’ve demanded the transparency of what’s in our food and how it is grown, why do we accept so easily the opaqueness of investment products? Let’s leave the illusions to the real magicians.

Hardeep Walia is founder and chief executive officer of Motif, a digital investing platform. He serves on technology advisory committee of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and the on the advisory board of Ascent Private Capital. He was previously general manager of the enterprise services business at Microsoft.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.