"Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt" is the new bestseller by Michael Lewis. It shows in minute detail how investors have been consistently ripped off by big Wall Street banks. The crux of the issue is that the incentives of investors and brokers are not aligned.
In fact, Wall Street firms are incentivized to act in their own best interests rather than in those of their clients. As a result, IEX, a new stock exchange that works in the best interests of clients has been created and so far has been extremely successful. Yet as I read the book, I recognized that this is not the only way in which the average guy is being ripped off.
Over the last number of months, as I adapted the purpose-finding process I created for youth for use by adults as well (purposesinc.com) I have received a crash course in the financial planning industry. This is a sector of the economy I previously knew little about.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of financial planners. In one group are those who earn money from the commission they make off the products they sell their clients. Then there are those who earn money from a consulting fee clients pay.
I have little expertise in the various financial products being sold to people as vehicles for retirement savings, and therefore will not wade into the debate about annuities versus other investments. Yet it is clear to me that a commission-based broker, in any business, is more highly incentivized to sell a product that gets them a higher commission than one that gets them a lower one.
Regarding a judge, the Torah (Deuteronomy, 16:19) states, "You shall not take a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the just." Jewish tradition explains (see Rashi) that even an otherwise intelligent, honest and upright person will be corrupted by the incentives bribery provides.
Clearly, the Torah is talking about the corruption inherent in a judge taking a bribe. A broker should not be held to the standard of a judge, nor is commission technically a bribe. But conceptually there is a connection. A deal based on commission unavoidably clouds the broker's impartiality, just like a bribe inevitably biases the judgment of a judge.
To be sure, none of this means that getting a commission on a transaction is wrong. However, it does mean that people need to be transparent. Firms and brokers that claim that their clients' best interests are their number one priority whilst simultaneously making commissions need to question themselves and their integrity more deeply.
Recently I attended a conference by a group of people who had done just that. Nazruden is made up of a group of financial planners many of whom used to be commission based brokers but recognized that there is an inherent conflict of interests between earning money in this way and having their clients' best interests at heart. They therefore decided to become fee only financial planners. Often these people earned less money as a result – at least in the short term.
At Nazruden I met people who try to help their clients have a successful life as well as a stable financial future. For the folks at Nazruden life coaching and financial planning are two sides of one coin.
As Michael Lewis' "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt" shows, nowadays people don’t have patience for the double talk of Wall Street and the deceit of old style salesmanship. Research by my friend, Dr. Laurie Bassi, published in her book "Good Company," shows that the consumer cares about goodness, positive behavior and integrity, and those who are trying to game the system will lose in the long run whilst companies like IEX and groups like Nazruden will prosper.
This is really good news – it truly pays to be good.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions
, a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life