Sendhil Mullainathan, a Professor Economics at Harvard and co-author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, writing at the New York Times had a recent experience familiar with many Americans of working age. He had to confront the neglected mess that is his retirement account.

Despite his role and title, investing is not what Mullainathan does for a living. Which begs the question: why is investing still so darn difficult? He writes:

Can’t the market fix things? If individuals are forced to choose their investments, why doesn’t the market make these choices easier?

Mullainathan notes how most consumer markets work pretty well. We can usually figure out whether a product we bought is any good or not. This is in start contrast with investments. He writes:

What distinguishes the market for investments is our inability to judge whether we have chosen well. Once I’ve used a phone for a few weeks, I can tell whether it was worth the money. By contrast, I may not know for decades (if ever) whether an investment was wise or foolish.

He goes on to note the many perverse incentives mutual fund companies have to mis-label their funds and the danger of financial advisors who are not in any way, shape or form, fiduciaries. Absent some sensible changes unfortunately investors are on their own. On his own, Mullainathan experienced something familiar to many novice investors:

The biggest lesson, I realized, was one that faces me all of the time: The biggest cost of fear is paralysis.

It is easy to make a mistake in choosing investments. But in an effort to avoid an error, I had been making an even bigger error. As I procrastinated, my money was uninvested and earning zero returns.

That, surely, is not the path to a happy retirement.

Last year in a post I noted the one great promise of robo-advisors: helping investors to get started. There was a great deal of debate this past week among two of the main robo-advisors about who charges how much in fees. This debate was frankly silly and missed the point. The fee issue important but pales in comparison to other issues facing investors.

So while Blake Ross writing at Medium is correct that every firm, other than Vanguard, is talking their own book. A novice investor coming to the Vanguard site is just as likely to get confused as if they were to visit another major fund firm or broker.

The one thing the robo-advisors have done well is onboarding investors into a portfolio that by and large is low cost and well-diversified. Something that most investors are unlikely to accomplish on their own. This innovation is one that would have served Mullainathan well and hopefully will help a cohort of investors in the future.

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