by Anne B. Johnston, Founder & Managing Director at Created
Investment decisions can be overwhelming and intimidating.
The stakes are high and when you’re not rooted deeply within a framework of criteria that help you evaluate opportunities, it’s easy to get swayed by what others are doing and saying. Shakespeare illustrates this concept in his play The Merchant of Venice.
Part of what makes Shakespeare’s work so timeless is its resonance with readers approaching these stories from all different perspectives. Let’s examine Shakespeare’s work The Merchant of Venice through the lens of a financial advisor.
If you’re familiar with The Merchant of Venice and thinking of finance, you may be expecting me to focus on the topic of debt. But we’re going to focus on a completely different part of the play.
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is heiress to the fortune of her late father, who leaves instructions in his will for a test that will select her husband. Her suitors must attempt to choose among three caskets of gold, silver, and lead.
Portia explains, “The one of them contains my picture, Prince: If you choose that, then I am yours withal” (The Merchant of Venice, 2.7.11-12). If they choose incorrectly, the suitors must remain single, never proposing marriage to another woman. The one who chooses correctly, however, will win Portia’s hand in marriage along with her immense fortune.
Meet suitor #1, the Prince of Morocco. He evaluates his three options and reasons that only the most precious metal could house the picture of such a beautiful woman. Portia’s picture surely could not be held in something as “base” as a lead casket, and silver is a lesser metal than gold.
He reads the message on the golden case:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (2.7.5).
This must refer to Portia, he thinks. Every man in the world wants her. The Moroccan prince learns of his gross misjudgment when he opens the casket to find a skull with the (oft misquoted :)) message: “All that glisters is not gold.” (2.7.69).
In other words, appearances are often deceiving. We should not make judgments based on face value alone.
Greet suitor #2, the Prince of Arragon. He dismisses lead as unworthy and the gold casket as appealing to “what many men desire.” He feels superior to the “common spirits” and so moves onto the inscription on the silver casket, which read:,
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (2.7.7).
As much as he deserves. This appeals to him! He believes he deserves the very best.
“Give me a key for this, and instantly unlock my fortunes here.” (2.9.51), he proclaims as he takes the key to the silver chest to unlock his fortune. In choosing silver, he lives up to the “arrogance” his name suggests! Inside the coffer he finds a portrait of a blinking idiot, and a poem that condemns him as a fool.
As we’ll discuss later, “overconfidence” can often cloud one’s better judgment.
Enter suitor #3, Bassanio. He casts a skeptical eye, distrusting the rich appearance of the gold and silver caskets, and he instead selects the casket of lead, interpreting its inscription:
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” (2.7.11-12)
What does this mean to him? Perhaps that true love requires real sacrifice. Bassanio opens the casket to find Portia’s picture and the message, “You that choose not by the view, chance as fair and choose as true” (3.2.137-138).
In other words, look beyond appearances and make choices based on true values.
In the lottery of the caskets, Bassanio prevails. Why?
VALUES BASED DECISIONS
In this scenario, Bassanio is motivated by love, rather than vanity, dominance, or the lust for money.
Shakespeare used the caskets in The Merchant of Venice to show that real value does not lie in materialism, greed and arrogance. In Bassanio’s reasoning and his choice of caskets, we encounter a powerful contrast between appearance and reality: what appears to be valuable (gold and silver) turns out to be worthless in this context, and what appears to be worthless (lead) turns out to be priceless.
Shakespeare, it seems, is challenging us to see beyond appearances or nominal values and to consider the motives or values in our own decision-making.
Recap: Suitor #1
Let’s revisit our suitors’ decisions.
Suitor #1, The Prince of Morocco, is influenced by his perception that “many men” value Portia. He used a common mental shortcut to make his decision: if others want it, it must be valuable. Therefore, he too must value the golden chest because that is the decision many others would make.
In the investment world today, you could conclude that the reason suitor number one failed was because he submitted to “herd instinct,” which is the tendency for individuals to mimic the actions (rational or irrational) of a larger group, even if it goes against their individual judgment. It’s also a flawed investment strategy.
The dot-com bubble of the late 1990s is an excellent example of how herding behavior led investors to buy funds at the highs and sell at the lows. As the Internet and information technology spread throughout society, investors became increasingly optimistic about the profit potential of companies that added the prefix “e-” or ended in “.com,” despite high valuations and little to no profits. Euphoria sets in when investors clamor into the market because they believe “prices can’t go down,” “this time is different” or “this is a new era.” As history has shown us, the positive feedback loop does not last forever.
“Herding” is one of the most dangerous behavioral traps because when people rely on hype or speculation rather than considering their individual values, goals, circumstances and sound investment principles it can lead to disappointing outcomes, as suitor #1 finds out. (Just imagine this Prince trying to navigate the housing bubble ;) ).
Recap: Suitor #2
Suitor #2, the Prince of Arragon, avoided the thinking errors of his peer from Morocco, and accordingly dismissed the chest of gold. Instead, The Prince Arragon is a classic victim of overconfidence bias. Satisfied with his reasoning ability and sure of his decision, he picked what he thought was a sure winner.
Similarly, some portfolio managers and individual investors today have a tendency to believe they are smarter and can judge market changes better than the rest.
The classic example of overconfidence bias is how the adroit folks at the hedge fund “Long Term Capital Management” lost billions of dollars and needed a bailout. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York had to step in and rescue this group of investors, many of whom were Nobel Prize winners. Exhibiting all the characteristics of the Prince of Arragon, they were certain they could never lose more than $35 million a day. Then the bottom of their treasure chest dropped out in August 1998, and the investment princes lost an estimated $550 million in a day.
A more familiar example of overconfidence bias is the tendency to associate the rise in value of hand-picked stocks with “skill” and the decline of underperforming stocks with “bad luck.” There are two main implications of investor overconfidence. The first is that investors take bad bets because they fail to realize that they are at an informational disadvantage. The second is that they trade more frequently than is prudent, which leads to excessive trading volume, and, consequently, diminishing returns.
*A fun side note on “diminishing returns,” I remember talking to a trader once who told me “trading stocks is like handling a bar of soap, the more you move it around the smaller it gets.” (because well, fees and taxes…)
Recap/Analysis Suitor #3
Despite his character flaws in the rest of the play when it comes to managing money, suitor #3 Bassanio goes with a values-based approach when making his decision. He says:
“Therefore, then, thou gaudy gold, Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee. Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge ’Tween man and man. But thou, thou meager lead, Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence, And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!” (3.2.100-110).
Essentially, Bassanio is saying that he is not going to be swayed by outward appearance or perception of value when making his choice.
ALIGN YOUR RESOURCES WITH YOUR VALUES
It’s important to identify what matters most to you in order to align your resources with those values.
Why? Because when you align your resources with your values it creates a stronger sense of purpose, meaning, integrity, and satisfaction with your money, and with your life.
As a financial advisor I’ve observed that when people focus their resources on things that they say are important to them (their chosen values) they experience more satisfaction, fulfillment and peace in their lives and financial decisions.
For example: Linda has spent her whole life dying to go to India, but there always seem to be other obligations. When she identified “adventure” as a deeply-held core value and desire of hers, she was able to be more intentional about where she focused her resources in order to prioritize bringing her vision to life.
Conversely, when people’s financial decisions are driven by the “shoulds” weighing them down, they feel a sense of dissatisfaction that they can’t quite put their finger on.
In order to make more values-based decisions, you have to figure out what those core values are. We wanted to help with this so we gamified the process into a “Values Deck” activity that you can do at home, alone or with family.
CLARITY AND CONFIDENCE
Shakespeare may not have been up to date on all of the wealth management latest and greatest, but he still illustrated an important point about decision making and perceived vs. deeply-held value. While we do not condone the use of this marital test in your estate planning or working directly with lead (as we are now aware that it is incredibly toxic), we encourage you to absorb the symbolic meaning of this plot point in the Merchant of Venice.
When you understand the values in which you’re rooted, you’re able to make decisions from a position of clarity and confidence. The next time someone comes comes along and tells you that they “got you in” to a “great new investment opportunity” that’s going to be the “next big thing,” now you have a way to evaluate that proposition.
When that happens, ask yourself: Does this investment opportunity align with what you determined you care about most? Would you have sought out this type of investment on your own?
Doing this simple exercise will save you a lot of money, time, heartache and regret. You will have more success finding your guidance inward, rather than trying to predict the market or letting others talk you into poor investments.
Only you know how to create wealth because only you can define what wealth means to you. And there’s nothing more valuable than that.