Hi Professor Lan Luh Luh,
I refer to your comments published in the article titled “Structured Products: Let’s not forget about personal responsibility” in TODAY on 2008/10/30.
I read your comments with a heavy heart and really hoped that the reporter has taken your comments out of context. I believe you are the first academic in Singapore to speak out and at the same time advocate caveat emptor.
I do not agree with what you said at all. I disagree with what you said on factual and moral grounds.
1) The returns on the structured products are certainly not double digits. The reporter may have asked you to comment on the wrong structured investment product. From what I have read, the returns on the structured products average about 5%. The returns on this product certainly does not match the risk the investor is undertaking.
I once commented to a friend that if the returns on these products are more than 10%, then the investors have no one to blame but themselves, as the returns would have match the risks.
In this case, the returns clearly do not match the risk. In equities, there is the risk of losing. But the investors have the opportunity to make big gains too. Here, the investors bear the risk of losing everything, but their returns are capped at ~5% no matter how well the market did. Is this fair?
2) "When people make money, nobody complains,” I think it is wrong to state this as an argument. When nothing happens, and the investors receive their ~5% returns every year, is it correct to fault them for not making any noise? I think this is normal human behavior. As the saying goes, when there is nothing wrong, why fix it?
They brought the investment product based on the relationship manager’s (RM) recommendation and trusted their RM’s explanation on how the product should work. And when the product is providing returns, is it correct to fault the investors for assuming that the product is working as it should and that they did not question further how the product should work?
For example, would a child check what are the specific hardware in a computer he just brought (assuming the child does not have the ability to check the hardware himself, and that the child has the power to purchase a computer himself), other than to just use it as it is and trust what the sales people told him? In this case, he will only find out that he has been sold a different hardware configuration only after the computer broke down and the repairman tells him that.
3) The third is on the general investor profile. When I first heard of this, I wanted to find out about the investors themselves before I make a judgment. Hence I went down to Speaker’s Corner personally on the first Saturday gathering to see for myself. I was stunned. The majority of the people I see there are people in their 50-60s who speak little or no English. The moment anyone sees this, statistics nor any scientific measures matter.
It is common sense that the people in the crowd certainly do not fit the risk profile of the investors the structure products should be targeting. If professor Lan has not seen the investors personally, I suggest professor Lan to visit the Speakers Corner this Saturday and see for yourself. More information about the gathering can be found here, http://tankinlian.blogspot.com. I stopped visiting the gathering after the first one as it really hurts to see and hear them.
4) I would like to stress that, from what I heard, the investors “thought” they “know” what they are investing. The risks and downsides were not clearly explained to them. I am almost certain that if the downsides and the true natural of the product was clearly explained, no one would buy them.
5) On caveat emptor. I think this idea is wrong and should not be encouraged at all. Caveat emptor encourage businesses to be irresponsible. I do not think that this is a desirable outcome for our economy or society. Our economy would just cease functioning normally. Everyone would have to spend lots and lots of time double checking and double check again before they buy something. Common goods that are purchased everyday on the basis of trust would have double checked, as the consumers know they have no one to turn to if something goes wrong, and that they are on their own. Is this desirable?
Our society would become one engulfed in suspicion, of anything and anyone. No one would help one another and no one is interested in one another. Everyone for themselves. Is this sort of society a desirable one to live in?
The examples I used are extremes, as I am trying to illustrate a point here. Let’s not assume caveat emptor is “correct” and just use it as it is. The question to ask should be, is it right and desirable in the first place to “advocate” something like caveat emptor even if it is an accepted reality that buyers should check their purchases? Who coined it anyway and under what circumstances was it invented?
Just imagine if the Chinese told the affected “too bad, you brought the milk yourself, no one forced you to buy my milk. It’s your business that your babies are being poisoned”, what will happen? And isn’t the melamine milk incident a perfect platform of advocating caveat emptor too? Think about it, why didn’t the Chinese do that?
To me, the MAS is equivalent to AVA. Its role is not there to check if the food taste good or not. Its role is to check whether if there are harmful substances in the food. I believe the AVA scientists do not have a easy time trying to determine whether something is harmful or not too. But they do their best, and when things happen, the products get redrawn, an apology issued and people get treated. A person financially ruin is akin to getting poisoned. Especially if what taken away from them are lifetime savings they intend to live on when they are old.
6) I know that the banks got themselves covered legally. Even a disclaimer from a local broker’s analyst report is longer than the actual report itself. However, it is a moral issue here, and not a legal issue. I believe if the banks were to buy back the products at cost right now, which many has the ability to do so without hurting their bottom-line, the amount of goodwill this action generated will last for multiple generations. This beats years and any amount of advertising. It’s like the 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders, and the banks are in the shoes of J&J now.
I believe professor Lan’s viewpoint may be slightly legalistic, considering your legal background. However, I urge professor Lan to be empathic to investors who have lost their savings.
I would like to stress that these are my personal opinions, and is not an attempt to show any form of disrespect. I am not personally involved any of the affected structured products.
Morgan Wu Min-han
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