We, homo sapiens, tend to confuse frequently motion with progress. A rocking horse keeps moving, yet it does not progress. One of the best example of this meaningless motion is the financial market.
The investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett would use the parable of Gotrocks Family for clarifying the foolishness and counter-productivity of our vast and complex financial market system (the parable has been “refurbished ” by John Bogle).
Once upon a time, a wealthy family named the Gotrocks, grown over the generations to include thousands of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, owned 100 percent of every stock in the United States. Each year, they reaped the rewards of investing: all the earnings growth that those thousands of corporations generated and all the dividends that they distributed. Each family member grew wealthier at the same pace, and all was harmonious. Their investment had compounded over the decades, creating enormous wealth, because the Gotrocks family was playing a winner’s game.
But after a while, a few fast-talking Helpers arrive on the scene, and they persuade some “smart” Gotrocks cousins that they can earn a larger share than the other relatives. These Helpers convince the cousins to sell some of their shares in the companies to other family members and to buy some shares of others from them in return. The Helpers handle the transactions, and as brokers, they receive commissions for their services. The ownership is thus rearranged among the family members.
To their surprise, however, the family wealth begins to grow at a slower pace. Why? Because some of the return is now consumed by the Helpers, and the family’s share of the generous pie that U.S. industry bakes each year—all those dividends paid, all those earnings reinvested in the business—100 percent at the outset, starts to decline, simply because some of the return is now consumed by the Helpers.
To make matters worse, while the family had always paid taxes on their dividends, some of the members are now also paying taxes on the capital gains they realize from their stock-swapping back and forth, further diminishing the family’s total wealth.
The smart cousins quickly realize that their plan has actually diminished the rate of growth in the family’s wealth. They recognize that their foray into stock-picking has been a failure and conclude that they need professional assistance, the better to pick the right stocks for themselves. So they hire stock-picking experts—more Helpers!—to gain an advantage. These money managers charge a fee for their services. So when the family appraises its wealth a year later, it finds that its share of the pie has diminished even further.
To make matters still worse, the new managers feel compelled to earn their keep by trading the family’s stocks at feverish levels of activity, not only increasing the brokerage commissions paid to the first set of Helpers, but running up the tax bill as well. Now the family’s earlier 100 percent share of the dividend and earnings pie is further diminished.
“Well, we failed to pick good stocks for ourselves, and when that didn’t work, we also failed to pick managers who could do so,” the smart cousins say. “What shall we do?” Undeterred by their two previous failures, they decide to hire still more Helpers. They retain the best investment consultants and financial planners they can find to advise them on how to select the right managers, who will then surely pick the right stocks. The consultants, of course, tell them they can do exactly that. “Just pay us a fee for our services,” the new Helpers assure the cousins, “and all will be well.”
Alas, the family’s share of the pie tumbles once again.
Alarmed at last, the family sits down together and takes stock of the events that have transpired since some of them began to try to outsmart the others. “How is it,” they ask, “that our original 100 percent share of the pie— made up each year of all those dividends and earnings— has dwindled to just 60 percent?”
Their wisest member, a sage old uncle, softly responds: “All that money you’ve paid to those Helpers and all those unnecessary extra taxes you’re paying come directly out of our family’s total earnings and dividends. Go back to square one, and do so immediately. Get rid of all your brokers. Get rid of all your money managers. Get rid of all your consultants. Then our family will again reap 100 percent of however large a pie that corporate America bakes for us, year after year.”
They followed the old uncle’s wise advice, returning to their original passive but productive strategy, holding all the stocks of corporate America, and standing pat
. . . and the Gotrocks Family Lived Happily Ever After