Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Scary, Dangerous Sideshow That Was Huey Long

Last week I wrote about two interesting biographical audiobooks, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford and Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White, Jr. Most of my commentary concerned the somewhat shrouded and largely misunderstood Genghis Khan. Huey Long was a different breed of cat.

Huey, (friends and enemies alike called him by his first name) was Louisiana’s Governor (and later U.S. Senator) during the Great Depression. He never graduated from high school, but was considered (by himself, at least) to be the best lawyer in Louisiana. Ruthless and colorful in his insatiable quest for power, Huey never shied from a fight. “Always hit the big man first” was his motto, and he followed it ferociously.

As governor, he used his influence to get supporters elected to the state legislature so he could enact his reforms, which many Louisianans will still tell you greatly benefitted the state. He openly believed that the end justified the means, and he frequently fixed elections. Often, his chosen candidate received more votes in a particular community than there were registered voters.

Once, he even had a vocal member of the opposition kidnapped just before an election. His henchmen (people often talk about politicians having “henchmen,” but Huey really did) took the irate victim fishing for a few days. When he resurfaced just after the election, he been converted into an enthusiastic Huey fan—and was, most likely, a good bit better off financially than he had been before.

While such stories can be amusing, Huey could be downright evil. FDR called him one of the two most dangerous men in America (the other was Senator Joseph McCarthy). Never satisfied with a fair fight, he would stack the deck in his favor. Just a few examples:

He started his own propaganda newspaper and required all state employees to subscribe via mandatory deductions from their paychecks. He stacked the state Supreme Court by adding seats and appointing supporters (a ploy tried unsuccessfully by President Franklin Roosevelt). And he would draft several dozen bills, many of which granted him outrageous powers, call the legislature together for a special session, and force passage of all twenty or thirty bills within a day or two, before the lawmakers even had a clue about what they were voting on.

Beyond stacking the deck, Huey was cruel and vindictive in punishing his opponents. He would have opponents—as well as opponents’ entire extended families—fired from their jobs. In some cases where the enemy owned his own business, Huey would have the very business outlawed by the legislature.

Despite all this, Huey was wildly popular among the poor people of Louisiana because they thought of him as poor and downtrodden, just like they were. He made no apologies. “We’ve always had graft in Louisiana,” he once said. “At least with me, they have roads, too!”

Have a great week!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Genghis Khan: He Was No Huey Long

I received quite a few interesting and insightful responses to last week’s question regarding the reasons why people do or do not seek advice from financial advisors.

It is clear that each person has his or her own reasons for doing what they do, and they are as varied as the people who hold them. I’d like to quote a few here, but unfortunately I can’t. The SEC has very strict regulations regarding the use of direct quotes from clients and even non-clients. Therefore, the numerous very thoughtful responses I received shall remain private.

On a completely different note, I recently listened to two biographical audiobooks: Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford and Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White, Jr.

Wow! What fascinating and extraordinary men. I didn’t deliberately choose these two books in succession, but having listened to them in order, it’s only natural to compare and contrast the two leaders.

Genghis Khan (pronounced “JEN-gis” as opposed to “GEN-jis” as I had previously thought) was a reluctant conqueror, not beginning to amass his empire until he was over fifty. By the time he died peacefully in 1227, he ruled an area as large as all of North America and half of South America. His influence extended from China through the Middle East and all the way to Eastern Europe. His sons extended the Mongol Empire into the largest contiguous empire in history.

He and his “Mongol hordes” have developed a reputation in recent centuries as primitive barbarians who conquered more-advanced cultures through terror and violence. Indeed, the Mongols were extremely limited in terms of education, they presented a frightful appearance to their intended victims, and like all conquerors, they gained territory through violence on the battlefield. But the standards of the Middle Ages, theirs was a remarkably egalitarian society, and the Khan was a remarkably magnanimous ruler. He allowed conquered societies to retain their own cultures, and wherever he found new and useful ideas or inventions, he spread them to other parts of his realm, so all could benefit from them.

The Khan (born with the name Temujin) was by no means a saint. He murdered his own half-brother when he was still a boy, an act that presaged a violent adult life. But, in a twist that may seem hard to accept in such a violent individual, he also was by nature a fair man. Whenever he needed to make a major decision, he would call a Kurultai, a mass assembly of his people. On the vast Mongolian plain where the population was widely dispersed, people often would have to travel many days to reach the site of the Kurultai. In fact, the very presence of a large assembly indicated their support for the idea at hand; if the people stayed away, the clear message was “no.”

In many ways, I found myself liking, admiring and respecting Genghis Khan, especially in comparison to other rulers of his era. I can’t say the same for Huey Long, the ruthless, power-hungry Governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression. I won’t take time this week to talk about Huey; maybe next time.

Have a great week!

Monday, April 5, 2010

To Seek or Not To Seek Advice?

A friend made an interesting comment during a recent conversation, and I’m wondering what you think about it.

This friend, who is not a client, mentioned in passing that recent economic troubles have led the investing public to understand the value of seeking professional advice in the areas of financial planning and investing. “We might not have understood it before,” he said, “but we do now.”

I wonder: is that really the case? My friend’s sentiment arose from the painful experiences of the Great Recession: the market meltdown, widespread unemployment, dead-in-the-water real estate and credit markets, and a general feeling that what we had long believed to be true may not be true after all. For him, at least, the need for professional assistance has become obvious.

But I’m not so sure. I think there are at least three factors working in the opposite direction. For one, as I have said before, we Americans can have a fairly short collective memory. It’s part of our greatness: while some cultures hold themselves back by holding grudges for centuries on end, Americans tend to focus on the task at hand and, to a great extent, let go of the past.

While this trait has proven to be of great benefit to us as a nation, it can sometimes pose a challenge. While the Great Recession is still with us on many fronts, the investment markets have been in recovery mode for a full year now. For some, I suspect the recovery has left much of the pain in the rear-view mirror, and their attention has shifted to other more pressing issues.

Then there is what we could call the Bernie Madoff factor. As you are no doubt painfully aware, Mr. Madoff, a well-respected investment manager to the ultra-rich, for many years was able to pull off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, in the process bilking his trusting clients of upwards of $50 billion.

The third factor holding people back from seeking professional financial advice (at least to my way of thinking) is the misplaced notion of paying someone to do what you should be able to do yourself. For some people, the idea of paying a (seemingly) large fee for help in managing one’s resources feels needlessly extravagant.

While each of these points has a persuasive argument on the opposite side, of course, and working with an advisor is certainly not right for everybody. But I do believe a large percentage of consumers could benefit from working with an advisor, and these three factors prevent a lot of them from doing so.

What do you think? I’d be interested in hearing from you. Drop me a line with your thoughts.

In the meantime, enjoy the week!