This article, by Justin Baiocchi, was originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 16 July 2016.
One of the unheralded wonders of the modern world has to be the humble asterisk. You know, this one ‘*’. When you start looking for it, you find it everywhere. Mobile plan and insurance advertisements on television; advertising billboards on the side of the highway; even politician’s promises. Ok I made that last one up, but if there was ever a worthy place for an asterisk it would be at the end of every sentence ever uttered by a politician. Examples include the following: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead*” and “…no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions*”. See how much better those sentences read if you include an asterisk? The asterisk immediately alerts you to the fact that what you’ve just read is subject to a bunch of caveats and conditions which essentially render the promise or commitment worthless. No side of politics or politician is blameless in asterisk abuse either; mastery of the asterisk appears to be a mandatory skill for acceptance into parliament.
Unfortunately the finance industry is also prone to asterisk abuse. The industry is fertile ground for making grand statements subject to a bewildering range of conditions. “Earn a guaranteed return of 19%!*” is the type of statement that you frequently see in investment advertising. The asterisk, of course, will tell you that the term ‘guaranteed’ only applies to the timing of the payments, such as, ‘we guarantee to pay you on the 15th of the month, but we make no guarantee that there will be any money to actually pay you’. Another common statement might be “Our growth investment option earned 15% last year*”, where the asterisk tells you that such a return assumes no fees, no taxes, that you invested at the market lows and sold out at the market highs and won the Second Division Powerball lottery and added the winnings to your investment. Seldom can so much be said by just one alphanumeric character, as when you wield the power of the asterisk.
Asterisks cannot be defeated of course, they can only be understood. The presence of an asterisk should be a blaring, flashing, vibrating warning light that you are at risk of being duped. This risk can only be managed by reading the nearly invisible small print which accompanies every asterisk. This is where the truth lies. Where you find out about the fees, costs, impossibilities and improbabilities of the headline statement. Don’t ignore the asterisk, it’s not your friend!*
*Unless of course you want to be a politician