A common problem for advisors is humanizing the methods and challenges of finance, and relating them to clients’ lives—some might say “dumbing the ideas down.”
Mihir Desai, a Harvard Business School professor, wouldn’t put it that way. The problem is part of a broader divide between the arts and sciences, he says: as finance has become more quantitative and specialized, it’s been alienated from the humanities. So it’s no surprise that the average person feels intimidated by, or even hostile to, the industry.
Desai’s 2017 book, The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return, seeks to rebuild bridges. It illustrates that finance and the humanities are complementary rather than in opposition; by understanding and appreciating one, we gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the other.
Some clients may be happy to keep the two separated, with consulting a professional as a way to compartmentalize. This may work most of the time, but the book makes the case for engaging the disengaged. It also offers tools for doing so.
Desai tracks finance’s wisdom to unlikely places. He takes philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s position “that randomness is everywhere but predictable in aggregate” to explain insurance. That discussion then goes from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon to 18th-century France, where annuities were created as an insurance tool for those worried about outliving their savings. Desperate to fund the Seven Years’ War, the French regime made the error of selling annuities with the same annual payment to people of all ages.
Not only did this ruin France’s finances and contribute to the revolution, Desai writes, but it provides an early example of “financial engineers bringing havoc to the world.” Swiss bankers bought French annuities on behalf of “particularly healthy” Swiss five-year-old girls, and then allowed people to invest in portfolios of these annuities.
Leverage is explained by comparing the approaches of George Orwell and Jeff Koons to their respective crafts. While Orwell’s seclusion in the Scottish Hebrides to write 1984 is like an all-equity financed firm that’s free of constraints, Koons is the leveraged buyout: he used the methods of futures trading in his creative process, selling his large installations in advance to secure the cash needed to execute them while employing a staff of more than a hundred.
If it sounds like the book would only appeal to Desai’s Harvard Business School students, rest assured that his reference points include a mix of high and popular culture. A Simpsons episode provides a valuable assist in explaining the French tontine insurance system in the 18th century. Stringer Bell’s use of temporary “burner” cell phones purchased from multiple stores to protect his drug operation in The Wire is an example of diversification to mitigate risk.
The book is not just a pep talk for those working in finance, though, as demonstrated in the last chapter, “Why Everyone Hates Finance.”
Desai describes discussions of “the number,” which many advisors have had with clients about how much they need to accumulate in order to pursue their dreams. This goes against what Desai considers finance’s underlying idea: that to “search for ever-greater satisfaction through accumulation is folly.”
So how did finance get away from its more noble foundations to the caricatures of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and real-life pharma bro Martin Shkreli?
Many in the industry achieve tremendous success at a young age, Desai writes. The question then becomes how to make sense of it. Financial professionals, “continuously fed feedback by the markets on their decisions,” are especially prone to erroneously attributing success to their abilities rather than to “the dominant role of chance.” Failures are rationalized as situational, because to do otherwise is “simply too humbling.”
This has created the popular characterization of insatiable desire, as in Gekko’s “greed is good.” Desai explains it as his “asshole theory of finance”: finance isn’t bad; the people finance attracts aren’t all bad; but finance “fuels ego and ambition in an unusually powerful way.”
The way to insure oneself against that risk forms the book’s thesis: “through works—and the work of—the imagination.”
“Finding narratives that allow us to stay attached to what is meaningful in finance can insulate us from the feedback loops of attribution error—and perhaps help save us from becoming caricatures like those in the more common and dispiriting depictions of finance,” he writes.
For the advisor, these narratives can not only keep you closer to the clients you’re serving on an imaginative level, but provide openings to describe and demystify your work. Got a client who’s a retired history teacher? Introduce annuities by way of the ancien regime’s collapse. One that’s into detective novels? Segue into insurance by way of The Maltese Falcon. The book is a treasure trove of reference points to help advisors relate to clients and build relationships. Everyone could use a few colourful examples when explaining tax deductibility or terminal values.
And the warnings about attribution error are worth remembering, especially when discussing client returns in this late cycle. Perhaps more than anything, Desai’s wisdom is a welcome change of pace from the market’s relentless feedback. Even for advisors who see clients every day, there’s the risk of abstracting a lot of your work, or having its broader purpose lost in the routine. The book grounds finance in culture, in many cases showing how it shaped that culture. It’s a refreshing vantage point from which to view the industry.