Russ Roberts – My name is Russ Roberts. I’m a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. I am the host of the weekly podcast Econ Talk, which I started in 2006, which was during the ice age, or maybe it was medieval times, a long time ago. My job and what I do with my time is I try to help people figure things out, understand things. In my earlier years it was mostly about economics. In recent years I’ve been thinking a lot about how to understand evidence, data, reliability of certain claims that are made in social science and science and lots of other things. My sub-title for Econ Talk is Conversations for the Curious. I try to ask my guests questions that I don’t understand or I think my listeners don’t understand and I’m trying to expand our knowledge. It’s pretty pretentious sounding, but that’s what I try to do. The recession came in 2008, so I spent a lot of time trying to understand that better. My early years podcasting there’s very traditional economics topics in there, macroeconomics, monetary economics, all kinds of stuff related to standard economic topics. In recent years I’ve gotten more interested in lots of other things. Part of it influenced by my reading of Adam Smith. He would not have called himself an economist, he would have called himself a moral philosopher, which meant not that he was a philosopher who’d always make sure to leave tips in restaurants he’d never eat in again, but rather a philosopher of morals. Somebody who studied why people acted ethically and what ethical behavior was, and how and why we sympathize with each other. As the country has fallen apart over the last, whatever time period you want to choose, economics still plays a crucial role. I still use an economics lens often of tradeoffs and what I call market forces. You can think of as emergent order, the things that are not under any one person’s control but that still emerge and influence our behavior. Those two things still affect my way of looking at the world, but I’m less interested in interest rates and inflation. Less interested in the minimum wage. I’m more interested in why we struggle to get along with each other, why we struggle as a country, and what’s gone wrong culturally in America. I’m using the lens of economics, but still looking at a wider range of topics which interest me.
Ben Jones – Russ has educated millions of people with creative endeavors over the course of his career. I wanted to ask him more about the inspiration of his creativity. Has trying out new ways of educating people always been part of your ethos? You’ve done some interesting rap videos. You’ve done Econ Talk, you’ve written several books. Why so many different mediums?
Russ Roberts – Well, it’s probably a character flaw. It’s probably that I’m easily bored. I know that traditional economic discourse is pretty dry, often mathematical, often simplified or narrowed to the point that it’s not of much interest to anyone other than the people already in the club. When I started in 1994 or ’92, I was interested in trade issues with Japan. NAFTA was on the table at that point also, the North American Free Trade Agreement. I watched a documentary on our trade with Japan, and it made a very emotional case against trade. I thought I’m interested in trade, and I think trade is generally good for America. Why is it that my side tends to draw a bunch of diagrams and the other side has got these documentaries with stirring music that appeals to the heart? Wouldn’t it be great to do something like that on our side? I said I’m going to make a movie. I created a plot and an idea for a movie and started raising money for that and realized I don’t know anything about making movies, raising money for movies, producing movies, writing screenplays. I thought, isn’t that one of the lessons of trade, that you should specialize in things you do at lower cost than other people and otherwise get other folks to do those by paying them and thereby exchanging your skills for their skills and get better off for both parties? Yeah. So I said that’s a mistake for me. Instead I thought well I’ll write a book. I can do that. I know how to do that. I wrote a novel in 1994 called The Choice, which made the case for trade and looked at all the downsides as well. Didn’t just try to make it a cheerful everything is great story. I loved doing that. That was a blast. I wrote two more novels like that. Somewhere in the late 2000s, around 2009 or so, a filmmaker named John Papola asked if we could do something together. We ended up creating two rap videos on Keynes Hayek ideas. That was incredibly fun. Then I wrote a poem that I had animated called It’s a Wonderful Loaf, and that was incredibly fun. I’ve written a bunch of songs, besides the rap videos with John Papola. Most of them aren’t worth hearing, but I like creative stuff. It keeps me interested. The podcast is just another way to do that. I like to think that the brain learns through conversation, and that by listening to two people talk like we’re doing now, your brain is naturally effective at gathering information from Q&A back and forth. That’s what I do mostly now. It makes me smarter. I like to hope it makes my audience smarter.
Emily Larsen – We have links to these creative projects on our show notes page. Given the recent discourse around the ideas of Keynes Hayek getting press these days, his rap video may be a good refresher for you. Russ is a voracious leaner and lover of knowledge. He’s a huge reader, and as mentioned, Adam Smith has been a topic of great interest to him. Adam Smith is best known for his seminal treatise on classical economics called the Wealth of Nations. Smith also wrote a lesser known book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s this work which has informed how Russ thinks about the intersection between life and economics.
Ben Jones – You wrote a book on Adam Smith and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’m curious from your perspective, what could Adam Smith teach us about life and happiness and so on and so forth.
Russ Roberts – Adam Smith wrote two books, one of which many people have heard of called The Wealth of Nations. His second book, which is actually his first book, his second in the sense that it’s less well known, is as you said, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He’s trying to understand in there what makes us tick. Why we do things that are seemingly benevolent to help other people, when in fact we’re mostly self-interested. Not 100%, but we are mostly self-interested. Not selfish, but self-interested. We tend to think of ourselves before we think of others in many situations. Certainly people outside of the family. We put ourselves first. So why do we ever do anything nice? That was one of the things Adam Smith was curious about. In writing about that he also gave us a lot of observations about what makes us happy. Happiness for Adam Smith is not what I think a person in the 21st century would call happy. It’s not like woohoo party time. He wasn’t much of a partier. When he talked about happiness, he really meant contentment, being at peace, being serene, feeling good about oneself. He has a line in there which I love which is man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely. By that he didn’t just mean the way we use the word love and lovely. He meant appreciated, respected, honored, praised. The idea that when you walk into a room people pay attention to you, and in your life you matter. People look to you for certain things. They respect you. Not only do we want that, we want to be lovely. That is, we want to be worthy of love of being loved. We want to be worthy of respect, worthy of honor. Now, he also understands that we have a temptation to fool ourselves. We might feel as if we’re worthy of honor by an act we take, but in fact we’re acting actually selfishly. We might remember that later and feel bad about it and encourage ourselves to try to do better the next time. In general, that phenomenon is a deep insight into where the true source of happiness is. It’s not the latest gadget. It’s not how much money your stocks earned this year, your portfolio. Those are all pleasant. We like those things. They are not the source of enduring satisfaction. Those enduring satisfactions come from our relationships with the people around us and the respect we earn by our actions and by our words. Smith understood that, and I think described it better than anybody. Once you think of the world that way, once you realize that people have an important self-image of themselves, a self-image that they see coming from the way other people look at them and you realize that we do defensive things to protect that self-image. We do aggressive things to enhance that self-image or at least try to. It just is a wonderful lens for thinking about how to behave and how to deal with other people. Now you have to be careful, it doesn’t mean I do everything to make sure that people think I’m cool, or I do everything to make sure that I curry favor with people. It’s not about sucking up to people. It’s about how you’re seen and your image, your reputation. Basically Smith is saying that’s the source of true satisfaction. He was on to something. I think it’s a profound insight.
Ben Jones – Capitalism has kind of been dragged through the mud a little bit over the last decade or so. I’m curious if you find it ironic that Adam Smith is largely thought of as the father of capitalism, had these same thoughts about happiness and human behavior.
Russ Roberts – We talked earlier that he’s not an economist. He’s not interested in maximizing GDP or the growth rate in GDP. He’s interested in what gives us a meaningful life. In his day that was part of moral philosophy. His best friend was David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers of all time. As I said, Adam Smith wouldn’t call himself an economist. In some sense he was a social scientist who was interested in psychology, anthropology, economics – people didn’t have formal names in the 18th century. But you’re right, there’s a little bit of a puzzle that certainly his book The Wealth of Nations is mainly about what I would call commercial life. This book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is about our social life. In that sense they’re complementary. Together, they combine most of what we do with our time. We interact with other people a lot, and we do that in two different ways: socially through social interactions like conversation, parties, comforting our friends, turning to others for comfort, entertaining each other, delighting in each other’s company. Those are all our social interactions, and then we have our commercial interactions. We buy and sell. We work. We hire people, we invest. We start businesses as human beings. These are the ways we interact commercially. Smith was interested in both of them. He was interested in pretty much everything. He was an incredibly curious person. And so it is a little bit surprising that the “father of capitalism” was interested in humanity, but that’s the way it should be. Capitalism — it shouldn’t be two parts of our life, the part where you go over here and make a lot of money, and the part over here where we’re nice to our friends. Smith believed that if you wanted to be successful in the commercial world you had to treat people well. You had to imagine how to satisfy their needs. That’s how you were successful in the business world. To me there’s nothing surprising about that. Capitalism being dragged through the mud for the last decade, I’d say it’s really more like the last couple centuries, always is criticized because it appeals to the worst in human beings, the dog eat dog world of capitalism, the profit motive. All those things work beautifully for human flourishing as long as there’s competition to protect you from other folks. If you have a monopoly you can treat people pretty badly. If you rely on people for business, you best to treat them well.
Ben Jones – You mentioned the self-image that Adam Smith was aware of. For advisors that work with people, how can they help better understand the self-image of their clients so that they can better serve them?
Russ Roberts – A different way to understand your question is, what can a financial advisor do to make their clients feel good about their choices. That’s a real art. There’s no easy way to make people feel good about a world of uncertainty. Most people want to be told by their financial advisor, this is a great stock. This is a fantastic buy. We’re really enthusiastic about this. That’s usually a little too gung-ho. It may help you sell that thing at the time, but we all know life is very uncertain. I think there is an opportunity when you’re in that advisory role to be honest with your clients about the uncertainty. It’s the same in medicine by the way. Certainly we want our doctors to be confident that they know what they’re doing, know how to do it, but so many times in medicine decisions to be made about whether to get surgery or not, what drugs to take, how to treat a certain condition, there’s uncertainty about it. There’s no obvious, simple, clean answer. I think allowing people to make their own decisions with the help of the doctor rather than pretending the doctor knows everything, is a much better way to enjoy being a doctor. I think similarly if your financial advisor rather than pretending to be the know-it-all who’s never wrong, much better to help let your clients make their own decisions with your help, your guidance, and not your pretended wisdom which is inevitably imperfect.
Ben Jones – Uncertainty is one of the certainties of financial planning. No one can predict the curve balls that life or financial markets might throw. Understanding this and being clear about it with your clients by assuming the role as a coach versus an all-knowing expert, can really strengthen your relationship, allow for deeper conversations, and better help clients understand the tradeoffs so they can make better decisions. I wanted to talk a little bit more with Russ about how an understanding of economics can influence our planning decisions with our clients.
One of the things that I’ve learned from you is that some of these economic theories and principles apply to life decisions, financial decisions, and while they don’t feel economic upfront, the principles lead to some really good decision making. I am curious from your perspective when thinking about life and financial planning, what do you think are the most important principles of economics and how someone might think about applying those?
Russ Roberts – There are two fundamental ideas I think in economics that are useful in thinking about investing, finance, or just life in general. One of those I mentioned already that life is full of tradeoffs. Doing one thing means you can’t do something else. Typical example of this kind of thinking is if you’re thinking about buying a house, a lot of people think a house is a good investment. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Depends where you buy the house, what kind of house it is. A lot of people naively think well if I spend a lot of money on a house that’s fantastic, because I get to live in it while I’m investing. I can’t live in a stock or a bond, so a house is a great investment relative to those two. As I said, it can be, but the logic isn’t true that just because you can live in it means it’s a better investment. If you buy a house in a neighborhood where the prices aren’t going up and you can’t predict that with any certainty no matter what. But if it turns out the price of your house doesn’t go up, and you buy a very expensive house that you struggle to afford, you’re going to be giving up other things you might want during the time you’re living in the house, most perhaps importantly the down payment you put down could have been invested in something else. The size of the house determines usually the size of the down payment. By buying a fancier house say, or in a nicer neighborhood, you’re tying up more money in that house and losing return you could have had elsewhere. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to buy a house. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to buy a nice house. It does mean it’s useful to remember that it’s not free. Oh but I’m living in it. Yes, that’s true, but it’s not free. You’re giving up the gains in your money that you might invest elsewhere from investing it elsewhere. That’s a simple idea of tradeoffs that comes from economics. Another idea of economics is that people take advantage of information when they can. A common mistake people make is they say well, let’s take something that’s in the news these days, Remdesivir is a possibly helpful treatment for coronavirus, for COVID-19. So you might say to yourself, oh I’ll buy some Gilead stock, because Gilead produces Remdesivir. Putting aside the fact that they’ve decided to give away I think 1.5M doses, their stock on hand without charging for it, which means it’s not going to be very useful for their stock price. There’s also the question of the fact that even if they were going to make a big profit from it, the news that Remdesivir works pretty well so far that we can tell on treating coronavirus, a lot of people already know that. You’re not the first one. That already pushed up the price of Gilead stock. The fact that it works isn’t going to return to your financial benefit. That knowledge and information is almost certainly embedded in the price of Gilead today. It was embedded in it well before today. Those are just two obvious things, but I think a deeper application of economics to these kind of issues is much more — I think there’s a presumption that you can sort of control things. You can measure stuff, and you can figure out the best portfolio and the best way to invest your money. As you get older and you see how the world works, you find out a lot of the simplifications that people use to make those kind of claims about knowledge and data and analysis are often overstated. I think one of the most important lessons you can learn, whether you call this from economics or not, is to be skeptical and to be cautious and understand that when someone promises you a particular return or a particular likely return, it might not actually happen. I think it’s important to realize that most of life is not quantifiable. This is hard to accept. We don’t like this. We like the idea that we can rely on an expert or data that we’ve seen to figure out what the best thing to do is. A lot of times, it’s just not true. When you realize that, it’s a — oh, what do I do now? And the answer is to be aware of that is actually quite valuable, to be aware that a lot of Get Rich Quick schemes don’t work, to be aware that the future is not necessarily like the past, very hard to be able to remember that, very hard, so when people say, well, the stock market over the last 75 years has returned, let’s say, 8% a year, well, that could be true. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to return 8% a year going forward. And that’s bizarrely difficult to remember. So those are just a few things I would point out in thinking about life decisions and in finance. I’d also encourage people — it’s no fun, but the more fun you can make it, the better your life will be. To embrace uncertainty, to be aware of the fact, to enjoy the fact that life’s not predictable. It would be lovely to take all the risk out of life. It would be a different kind of life. But I think we have an urge to do that, and we make mistakes because we have an urge to do that, and being aware that it’s impossible is not a bad thing to keep in mind.
Emily Larsen – Throughout life, we have a series of known transitions, getting married, having children, empty nesting, retirement, and death, just to name a few. Each life stage has dozens of decisions, which in turn can impact the next stage. So you can help your clients make better decisions by discussing the trade-offs involved. We would be remiss if, in discussion about the union of economics and life, we did not mention the field of behavioral economics. You might think Russ would be a big advocate, but bear in mind he’s got a keen interest in data analysis and statistics, so when you understand those things, you might grow skeptical of all the hot new research that promises to easily explain how people think and spend their money.
Ben Jones – I do want to transition to another area of economics, which is behavioral economics. It’s become very popular in financial circles. What are your thoughts on the topic?
Russ Roberts – Well, I think there’s two ways to think about it. One is the way that academics think about it, and the second is the way that people in the real world think about it. The way academics think about it is, well, economics makes all these unrealistic assumptions, and behavioral economics comes along and says, you know, if all these assumptions weren’t realistic, they don’t hold up in these various settings, and we have experimental evidence that shows this, that people make mistakes, they’re not so rational, and I think that’s all true. The question is so what? In the case of the academic arguments about economics, what I think the behavioral economists forget is that market forces correct a lot of mistakes that people make. If you’re overconfident, the market will tell you, and you’ll learn about how to be more cautious. You’ll be forced to by the fact that your account is getting smaller, although in the short run, you might look really smart and feel good about yourself. But I think a more practical case in the day-to-day world of investing; I think the really important thing is to be aware of your limitations, to be aware of your biases. It really helps, I think, as an investor, to remember that it’s much easier to remember your successes than your failures. So at the heart of behavioral economics is the idea of self-deception, and ironically, Adam Smith also wrote about that. We understand we want to feel lovely. We want to feel good about ourselves, so we tend to not remember so well the times when we weren’t lovely and we didn’t maybe make the best investment or the best choice in life. And so it’s good to know that if you want to be honest with yourself. I think that’s a good idea. So in behavioral economics, I think a lot of the insights come from the fact that we misappreciate, misunderstand, misread, data sometimes, the situation, the riskiness of the situation, and to be aware of our inability sometimes to see outside ourselves — is very useful. So in that sense that’s why I think behavioral economics is really important. The idea that we self-deceive is really important. The idea that we don’t like to be reminded of our shortcomings, that we run away from those situations. Those are all important things. But I think in the academic back and forth, a lot of it is overblown. A lot of the experimental findings, attempts to make economics more like science and less like history, doesn’t work so well. A lot of those findings have not stood up to replication. It’s going to be interesting to see over the next 10, 20 years whether some of the things we thought we knew turn out to be true or false. So I think you have to be careful when you read those books that lay out all the findings from the “scientific literature,” but remembering that you self-deceive, that it’s hard to be aware of your own biases, and the more you can do that, the more easier you will make wise decisions, I think is really important, so in that sense, I think behavioral economics is crucial. And remembering that is very good.
Ben Jones – It’s interesting that you bring that up, the replication crisis up. That’s one of the questions I was going to ask you, which is do you think that it’ll suffer similarly from the replication crisis that’s plagued psychology and some of the other social sciences or sciences? Does that make it any less relevant?
Russ Roberts – I think a lot of the findings are unreliable and have been shown to be unreliable, and some additional ones will be shown to be unreliable, which is really unfortunate, but it’s the way, ideally, science and truth march forward. A lot of the things we think we know about psychology from the academic literature turned out not to be true. And so the things that we think are true are a much smaller set. That’s okay. That’s realistic. I think it’s good to remember that. Don’t believe the latest thing you see on the front page of the New York Times. Study shows – because a lot of times, that study is flawed, isn’t true, doesn’t work, and so a lot of the hipper, cooler, startling findings of behavioral economics, which is sort of the interface of psychology and economics, a lot of them don’t stand up, and I don’t think they will stand up. Some of them will. It just means you should be skeptical, which is a good stance in general, I would say.
Ben Jones – I think that advisors, we tend to like to look at statistics and big data and be able to point to things to oftentimes justify our point rather than what’s maybe important, which is think about what we believe. But tell me about some of the concerns that you have about being misled by big data.
Russ Roberts – So I like what Naseem Talla says. He says, big data, bigger mistakes. And by that, he means when you have a lot of data on a lot of different things, it’s easy to find patterns in the data. That’s really what machine learning and artificial intelligence — sound really fancy, but what they’re mainly doing is looking for patterns in the data. And when you have a lot of data, it’s easy to find patterns. But if those patterns are reliable, whether they will be replicated, duplicated, in the future, you don’t know. If you don’t understand the true causal relationship between the variables and the data set, not going to turn out very well. So I think there’s a romance we have with data and analysis that if we just strangle it enough, it’ll speak. And I just don’t think that’s going to turn out as wonderfully as people hope it will. I don’t think we understand causation as well as we’d like. The world’s a complicated place. The fancy way to say that is multicausal. It’s not just one cause. So there’s multiple causes of the phenomena that we’re interested in understanding. But we’re human, and we’re limited, and we tend to focus on one thing. And we tend to overemphasize that one thing, and then we start seeing data that makes us think that one thing is the right answer, and we start ignoring the data that says it’s not. And so I think it’s a big challenge. Big data is not magic.
Ben Jones – And so for advisors who are not statisticians out there but like to analyze data and look at things, what advice would you have for them about things they should be aware of or biases we might have to avoid those spurious correlations?
Russ Roberts – Well, I want to just remember that that’s sometimes the case, but I think the other lesson, and I think this is really important for investing generally, is that there’s such a temptation to reach for yield, and there’s such a temptation to hope that tomorrow will be like yesterday. The trends will continue. And that’s not always true. And so what you want to do, and again, I’ve learned this from Naseem Talla, is you really want to avoid ruin. Ruin is what gets you. So you don’t feel the same about a gain as you feel about a loss. If the loss takes you out of the gain, the wedge out, you can’t get at those average returns, say, that accrue over time. So I think it’s really important for advisors and individuals who are investing their money to remember that things aren’t always going to be the same. My favorite example of this, and you hear this all the time, well, the worst five-year period for stocks was X% down, so you know that if you take that as your worst-case scenario, then your portfolio is going to be fine as long as you’re going to hold it more than 10 years, say, for example. But it’s not true. It is not true that just because the worst five years in the past was whenever it was, that that’s going to be the worst five years going forward. The worst five years in the future might be worse than the worst five years in the past. That’s so obviously true. It’s like saying — you can see this in certain parks, you’ll see a stick, and the stick will be marked with The Flood of 1917 where the water got this high on the stick. Then there was a flood in 1923 where it got this high. But in 1876, it was this high. And so a lot of people think, well, it’ll never be higher than that. I mean, 1876 was the worst flood. So if I build a building that’s higher than that, it’ll never get wet. But that’s not true. The worst flood in the future could be worse than the worst flood of the past. That’s so obviously a fact and unavoidable logical truth, but we have trouble remembering it because we want to say, oh, what’s the worst thing that could happen. I know, just look at the data. But the data are all from the past, and the data you care about are the data in the future. So you want to insulate yourself. You want to ensure. You want to make sure and be prudent, you don’t subject yourself to ruin because you underestimate how bad the worst-case scenario could be. It doesn’t mean you sit on your hands, you never invest. It means that you must be aware, though, of how bad it can be, and if you only look at data, data are by definition the past. And forecasts are inevitably based on the data of the past and the mechanisms and relationships of the past, and if those relationships change, which they do all the time, future might not be like the past. Hard to remember, but it’s really important.
Ben Jones – Understanding our own biases, as well as our client’s biases, is an enduring concept of behavioral economics. Ironic, though, that many of the studies used to teach us this lesson might not endure. It doesn’t make it any less important as we help our clients make better decisions. We started the show by discussing Russ’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and to close out, I had a couple of final questions for Russ about the nature of how to expand your mind further and be a critical thinker. The more you can learn and the more experience you have, the better positioned you will be in to guide your clients towards better outcomes. You seem to be a very avid consumer of information. What I perceive to be the case is that you have really high recall and retention. For advisors out there who read a lot but don’t have as high a recall or retention, what’s the source or secret of your process there?
Russ Roberts – I don’t have one. There are systems for keeping track of what you read. Ryan Holiday’s the author and stoic, one of my favorite Econ Talk guests, and he has an elaborate system of note-taking and keeping track of what he’s learned. AJ Jacobs, who has a file that he calls One Thing, I love that. I do use that, but not so much. I enjoy using it. I don’t know how important it is for my recall, but I love it. It’s — after you read something or talk to someone or have an experience, what’s the one thing you want to remember from that? And so writing it down is not a bad idea. But I’m not sure that it helps me remember it. I enjoy going back and looking at it. But I think the main way, the classic way, to recall something is to tell someone about it, and as a teacher, that works probably pretty well for me. It’s probably something what makes me able to recall stuff. So reminding other people what you’ve learned or telling them what you’ve learned, being excited about it probably helps me remember stuff.
Ben Jones – Wonderful. And if you were going to summarize our entire conversation today in one or two sentences, how would you do it?
Russ Roberts – Risk is unavoidable. Uncertainty is unavoidable. Try to embrace it. Try to see life as more of an adventure than a plan. I think that’s a challenge in financial planning. And I think it’s a challenge in life generally. But I think it’s a good way to think about it.
Ben Jones – And if you were to write your own surgeon general’s warning today on our discussion, how would it read?
Russ Roberts – I’d take everything with a grain of salt, even what I serve you.
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