There is never a shortage of advice on how to conduct your affairs in America, but nowhere is it in greater abundance and probably less clearly valuable than in financial matters.
Hundreds of newsletters and thousands of investment advisers annually offer millions of views on thousands of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, unit trusts and a myriad number of retirement plans.There are even some advisers who seek wisdom and guidance in the published views of their fellow advisers rather than studying the investment products themselves. Some advisers are disasters, most are average, a very few excel.
On almost any day of the week you can choose to believe "stocks poised for major rally" or "seesaw market to continue" or "watch out for the marauding bear." You can find whatever view you can imagine, and pay for it.
Such diversity of opinion might be expected, of course, since that is what makes a marketplace, but it indicates the problems facing the millions of inexperienced investors who have entered the stock market in recent years.
Many of these investors are first-timers, having transferred savings from fixed-income securities such as bank certificates of deposit to stocks or mutual funds in pursuit of higher returns.
Such investors are relatively new to risk, and they are potential prey for those who pitch questionable stock advice for a price, that price sometimes being in the several hundreds and even thousands of dollars a year.
Accommodating them, stock mutual funds have sprung up to absorb the flood of money coming into the marketplace. With a fund having been created for almost any whim, the total of all funds now nears 5,000 managing $2 trillion.
Confronted with such an avalanche, the industry itself and its regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, are concerned not just about the quality of advice offered to investors but the quality of fund management, too.
Some fund managers are young, inexperienced and untested. Some are old and experienced and have flunked the test, producing results that fail.
Celebrity, as in show business, has infused the marketplace, with new money sometimes flowing to the latest media star. Similarly, reputations lost years ago still manage to impress newcomers who fail to check the record.
How many money managers at all times follow the prudent man principle - that a fiduciary should be as responsible with client money as with his or her own? Perhaps 50 percent, says John Wright of Wright Investors Service.
How many mutual funds wander from the goals they promote in their marketing brochures?
Such questions lead to others:
How will these newcomers to the stock market react when they see their results? How will they react to a stock market crisis or to unsettling financial or world events? Will they grab their money and let stocks fall?
And how will the big mutual funds react when a crisis hits?
Such nettling questions are hardly welcomed by an industry that relies so heavily on a public image of know-how and trust, but those very questions are among those being asked now both by the industry and its regulators.