Global View Investment Blog

Confusopoly: Is TIAA Preying on Investors?

Our readers may be familiar with the work of Scott Adams, who coined the term confusopoly, which describes any industry that benefits from keeping consumers confused.

The Financial services industry is clearly a confusopoly.

And executives at financial services firms understand human beings are not only irrational, but actually (nearly) perfectly, predictably irrational, according to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann. This means there is plenty of opportunity for them to profit at investors’ expense.

To know this is true, you only need look at the return InvestORs in the retail share class of the Vanguard S&P 500 fund (last 10 years ending September 2017) made as opposed to the return of the fund itself. InvestORs (in this retail share class) made less than half as much as the fund itself, because they bought when value was scarce (price was high) and sold when value was abundant (price was low).

The fund made 7.3% per year. But investors (in the retail share class) only made 2.9%. For every seller there is a buyer and every buyer a seller, so this was a zero-sum gain. In other words, someone had to make MORE than 7.3% for the math to work. Someone made well over 10% per year (if you add the gap to the average return it comes to 11.7%).

A skeptical investor (we are professional skeptics) would say the big banks, insurance firms (and others) who understand behavioral psychology, and who know how investors are likely to behave, were on the other side of the trade and pocketed the difference. They are trained to buy when value is abundant (prices low) and sell when value it scarce (prices are high).

This means many investors need help, if only to protect them from the big banks and insurance companies.

But what gets my goat is when these same big banks and insurance companies mislead investors by falsely stating they are putting their interests first, when they clearly are not. Which is why I am blogging this.

According to the New York Times article posted below TIAA (formerly TIAA CREF) puts itself forward as a “mission-based organization” with a "nonprofit heritage" which may lead many to believe investors' interest will always come first - to believe that their interests will come before the firm’s interests.

Investors already know that when they deal with JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley (and other Wall Street firms) as well as other publicly traded firms who must put shareholder’s interests before investors’ interests (it’s literally what publicly traded companies must do, legally), that their interests cannot be first.

But, because TIAA has a “not for profit” heritage they may be confused.

So, let’s cut through this confusion.

“According to interviews with 10 former employees, TIAA management assigned outsize sales quotas to its representatives and directed them to meet the quotas by playing up customers’ fears of not having enough money in retirement and other pain points” IN ORDER TO SELL THEM ANNUITIES AND OTHER HIGHER COST INVESTMENTS, that a party not incented to do so would not recommend (because they are not only not useful, but harmful)!

I know what you may be thinking (if you are a teacher or professor who has been with TIAA for many years and is familiar with the Carnegie Mellon legacy). It’s because you don’t know that Congress revoked TIAA’s nonprofit status in 1997. Then TIAA ramped up its sales efforts after it hired a Merrill Lynch executive in 2002.

Some of the ways TIAA is misleading investors include:

  1. TIAA website ends .org (which leads many to believe it is nonprofit) instead of .com (which is end to the address for for-profit companies).
  2. TIAA uses the term “nonprofit heritage” obfuscating the fact that they are in fact FOR PROFIT.
  3. TIAA states that their advisors do not receive commissions. But omits that advisors receive bonuses for meeting sales quotas.

Let me be clear, this is the tip of the iceberg – there are many ways for companies to make money at investors’ expense. But if you are an investor with money at TIAA you need to understand that they, like most other financial services companies, are operating for profit. There is nothing wrong with that. But we aren’t fans of firms that are not transparent and even dishonest about it.

We have a system to help investors navigate this confusopoly. It starts with gaining a clear understanding of your attitude toward risk, something few investors do. It’s also the largest source of the investor return gap. Investors take risk because they don’t know what risk they are taking. And that’s okay when you are starting out, but not so much when you need to convert those assets to income.

The next step is to allocate risk to your ability to handle volatility. Then you need to understand exactly how much volatility you are likely to endure.

We have the ability to help investors make a simple plan for this, charging a one-time fee. But we find most investors, who have already accumulated the bulk of their life-time wealth, also like to hire us for ongoing planning and investment management. Because both the investment environment and the regulatory and tax environment are constantly changing.

Increasingly investors are finding us on the internet. Reading our blogs (and you can go back several years) is a great way to get an introduction. And if you are here reading this, well … you are probably someone I would like to talk to.

But we aren’t for everyone.

When you contact us to thank us for posting this, please give credit to Adam Wiles, who brought this article to my attention.

To start the process and get a valid assessment of your attitude toward risk, click here. For more information on this topic, read this.

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Ken Moore

Written by Ken Moore

Ken’s focus is on investment strategy, research and analysis as well as financial planning strategy. Ken plays the lead role of our team identifying investments that fit the philosophy of the Global View approach. He is a strict adherent to Margin of Safety investment principles and has a strong belief in the power of business cycles. On a personal note, Ken was born in 1964 in Lexington Virginia, has been married since 1991. Immediately before locating to Greenville in 1997, Ken lived in New York City.

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