The Profit Motive Behind Financial Complexity

Guess what? When investors don't understand what they're buying, they do worse.

We'd explain it to you if we could.

Photographer: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Economist George Akerlof has spent much of his celebrated career thinking about how trickery and deceit affect markets. His most famous insight, which won him the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, is that when buyers and sellers have different information, lack of trust can cause markets to break down. In those models, no one actually ends up getting tricked -- everyone is perfectly rational, so even the possibility of getting cheated causes them to stay prudently out of the market. But in his book “Phishing for Phools,” written with fellow Nobelist Robert Shiller, Akerlof goes one step further. Much of the actual, real-world economy, he says, involves trickery and deception.

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