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HindustanTimes Tue,23 Sep 2014

The Godmen of investments: placebo or real medicine?

Dhirendra Kumar, Hindustan Times   April 15, 2012
First Published: 22:00 IST(15/4/2012) | Last Updated: 22:02 IST(15/4/2012)

Over the last few days, the print and electronic media has had news articles about the activities of a god-man named Nirmal Baba. First, one news channel did an investigative report on him and estimated that at Rs. 2,000 per devotee per event, his income as Rs. 85 crore. Then, the god-man himself appeared on another channel and said that the figure was incorrect and his actual income was Rs. 235 crore and that he paid all his taxes and so on and so forth. Presumably, since April 1, he must also be charging service tax. However, some of the discussion quickly gravitated as to whether the god-man was 'genuine'. In other words, whether he was actually providing the services (benefits) he was charging for.

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Of course, this is an essentially unanswerable question. From the god-man's own statements, he seems to suggest that if people are satisfied that they are benefiting, then that's that. In other words, he is in the business of supplying a placebo effect. I guess, one can't actually argue with that. The placebo effect is a major part of what advisors and consultants of all sorts deliver. This is even true in personal finance and investments, where one would have expected hard numbers to drive out any kind of faff.

In investments, the placebo effect mainly seems to take the form of verbiage that excuses the poor performance with explanations and analyses. At the end of the day, investors are led through bad choices but they are eventually satisfied with a reason for the bad performance.

However, unlike whatever it is that god-men do, in investments it is easy to distinguish between the real medicine and the placebo. It's just that one might have to persist with the medicine a lot longer than a quick visit to a god-man.


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