The World Still Deceived With Ornament

By Robert Seawright

I went to the Old Globe here in San Diego this week to hear Professor James Shapiro of Columbia, one of the world's great Shakespeare scholars, talk about the Bard and his influence with our own Barry Edelstein, who is no slouch on the subject himself. The main focus of what was a wide-ranging conversation was The Merchant of Venice, one of the plays being offered in rotation this year by our Shakespeare Festival. It, like the Festival, was outstanding.

As is usual for such events, a time for questions was offered. And, as is all too common an occurrence at such times, some blowhard used the opportunity to pontificate and tell the experts what's really going on. As best as I could tell, our would-be genius claimed that Merchant did not consider the relationships among Jews and Christians; instead, Shakespeare's major concern was offering a Marxist and anti-capitalist critique of feudal England (Merchant was first thought to be performed in 1597). As the Prince of Morocco noted in the play, "All that glisters is not gold." I'm not sure it even glisters.

Thankfully, Prof. Shapiro put our alleged scholar in his place, even if I wish he hadn't allowed the so-called "question" to go on so long and that the put-down had been much sharper. He certainly didn't have to be so polite on my account.

Sadly, the investment business is at least as full of blowhards as are audiences at a lecture series. As Shakespeare wrote in Merchant, they "speak an infinite deal of nothing." Unfortunately, since our business is so fraught with competing ideologies, ideas and hypotheses, seldom are the dopes put in their proper place. Indeed, on account of their apparent certainty (consider the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby the least competent are the most confident and vice versa), these dolts are very often the most effective sales people. "The world is still deceived with ornament."

Ironically, supreme confidence makes for better sales people and also provides pretty good evidence for a lack of investment skill. "The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark, when neither is attended." And because they can think (or convince themselves) that they're doing right, they are certain of their own righteousness. "O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!" Because of the complexity and the number of variables at work in the markets ("two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff"), anything like certainty is impossible. Phony certitude holds the upper hand. "There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on his outward parts."

Some who can see the right can become jaded ("A goodly apple rotten at the heart") by seeing incompetents succeed. "If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces." Some even succumb to the sales pressure.
It can be discouraging for those who consistently try to do the right thing the right way to see prospective business go to their lessers because of a good shtick. Perhaps Portia can offer some comfort. "How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world." Doing good should be its own reward.


Bob Seawright is Chief Investment & Information officer for Madison Avenue Securities, a boutique broker-dealer and investment advisory firm headquatered in San Diego, California. He blogs at Above The Market.

Advertisement: Partner Center
Sponsored Links

Recent Off The Street Blog

Off The Street Blog Archives

In The News