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Dispensing personal finance advice to the masses is big business. Authors such as Robert Kiyosaki (“Rich Dad, Poor Dad”) and Dave Ramsey (“The Total Money Makeover”) have sold millions of books. Ramsey also has a large web and radio audience, and advisor-authors like Suze Orman frequently dispense advice to national television audiences.

But does popular financial advice line up with sound economic principles? In a working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finance professor James Choi of the Yale School of Management considers that question.

Choi surveys the advice given by the 50 most popular personal finance books and compares that advice with the normative, or benchmark, academic advice for the same topic. In some instances, the pundits and the professors agree; in others, they recommend very different courses of action.

But popular authors have valid reasons to deviate from academic theory, Choi notes. For example, popular advice can be easier for ordinary investors to follow and often takes into account real-world behavior, such as lack of motivation to follow a financial plan and investors’ emotional responses.

“Popular advice may be more practically useful to the ordinary individual,” he writes.

Here are a few of the differences he found in advice from best-selling authors versus professors:

1. How Much Should I Save?

Bestsellers: Save 10% to 15% of your income regardless of your age and current life circumstances; save more if you can as you get older. The reasoning? Tony Robbins ("Money: Master the Game," 2014) cites the value of compounding and how it’s critical not to avoid interruptions in your savings plan.

David Chilton ("The Wealthy Barber Returns," 2011) argues for saving in one’s early career because income is low and the costs of getting established in life are high. Costs rarely stabilize, Chilton says, and most people can’t transition successfully from saving nothing to saving a large percentage of their income.

Professors: Choi notes that academics have a different perspective: “Because income tends to be hump-shaped with respect to age, savings rates should on average be low or negative early in life, high in midlife, and negative during retirement.”

(Image: Shutterstock)

2. Should I Use Mental Accounts for Savings?

Bestsellers: Divide savings into mental accounts devoted to different goals. According to Choi, commonly mentioned mental accounts are a fund for emergencies, a retirement savings fund, a fund for major purchases such as a house or a car, and a fund for children’s college tuition. Burton Malkiel ("A Random Walk Down Wall Street," 2019) writes, “A specific need must be funded with specific assets dedicated to that need.”

Professors: “Standard economic theory does not earmark portions of household savings for specific purposes; money is fungible.” Yet “using mental accounting when choosing savings rates has some advantages,” he continues.

Dean Karlan et al. ("Getting to the Top of Mind: How Reminders Increase Saving," 2016) argue that mental accounting increases motivation to save by “making salient the link between today’s saving and specific future expenditures.”

(Image: Adobe Stock)

3. Is Dividend Investing a Good Strategy?

Bestsellers: Dividends are a good thing. Malkiel ("A Random Walk Down Wall Street," 2019) recommends coping with the current low-interest-rate environment by holding relatively stable dividend-paying stocks in place of bonds. Kiyosaki ("Rich Dad, Poor Dad," 2012) believes that cash flow from the investment is the only relevant factor.

Peter Lynch ("One Up on Wall Street,"1989) argues that “the presence of the dividend can keep the stock price from falling as far” because “if investors are sure that the high (dividend) yield will hold up, they’ll buy the stock just for that.”

Professors: Dividends are irrelevant. Franco Modigliani and Merton H. Miller’s early research ("Dividend Policy, Growth, and the Valuation of Shares," 1961) proves that in a frictionless market with no taxes, a firm’s payout policy is irrelevant for its valuation. The intuition is that any investor who desires a certain amount of cash from their investment can generate it by selling shares instead of relying on a dividend.

Also, in the real world, according to H. Kent Baker and Rob Weigand ("Corporate Dividend Policy Revisited," 2015), dividends and interest are tax-disadvantaged relative to capital gains in the U.S., which makes the prevalence of dividends a puzzle.

(Image: Shutterstock)

4. How Much Should I Invest in International Stocks?

Bestsellers: Hold international stocks, but in lower proportion to their global market capitalization weight. Choi writes that John Bogle ("Common Sense on Mutual Funds," 1999; "The Little Book of Common Sense Investing," 2017) notes that a significant portion of the revenue and profits of S&P 500 companies comes from other nations, so U.S. stocks already provide international exposure.

And J.L. Collins ("The Simple Path to Wealth," 2016) writes that increasing cross-border market integration has reduced the diversification benefits of holding foreign stocks. Bogle and Collins also argue that the U.S. is the most attractive market to invest in because its economy will experience the strongest future growth.

Professors: Hold international stocks in proportion to their global market cap weight. Their reasoning: “The correlation of multinationals’ stock returns with their domestic stock market is very high, limiting the international diversification benefit obtained by buying the multinational stocks of one’s own country" (Karen K. Lewis, "Trying to Explain Home Bias in Equities and Consumption," 1999).

(Image: Shutterstock)


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