Are You Profiting From the Golden Age of Investing?

Original post

In my last column, I mentioned a friend who told me she’s earned low returns on her investments because she never invested in the markets.

“Why?” I asked.

She claimed the deck is completely stacked against ordinary investors, that high investment minimums, outlandish costs and a knowledge disparity prevent the average investor from getting ahead on Wall Street… or even getting a fair shake.

This may be conventional wisdom in some quarters. But it isn’t just wrong. It’s preposterous.

We are living in a golden age for investors.

I’m not talking about low inflation, 4.1% economic growth, record corporate profits or the nine-year bull market (soon to be the longest in U.S. history).

I’m referring to the indisputable fact that investors – even the smallest ones – have never had it easier than they do today.

Let me explain why, starting with the so-called “knowledge disparity.”

You don’t know what lies ahead for the economy, interest rates, inflation or the dollar. And neither do the “geniuses” on Wall Street.

The only difference is you’re ready to confess your ignorance while they hide theirs behind gold-embossed research reports and “market forecasts.”

As journalist Jesse Eisinger wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Pity the poor Wall Street economist. Big staffs, sophisticated models, reams of historical data, degrees from schools known by merely the name of the biggest benefactor, and still they forecast about as well as groundhogs.”

(Punxsutawney Phil may actually have an edge on most of them.)

Studies consistently reveal that 3 out of 4 active stock and bond fund managers do not outperform their benchmark each year. (Over periods of a decade or more, more than 95% of them fail to.)

You could plunk a few dollars in an S&P 500 index fund and beat the overwhelming majority of these “masters of the universe,” most of whom service their clients the way Bonnie and Clyde serviced banks.

If these guys are really such brilliant risk managers, you might reasonably wonder how Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers spiraled into bankruptcy a decade ago. And in a matter of days.

A far better choice for most investors is Vanguard, the nation’s largest investment company with more than $5.1 trillion under management.

Unique in the investment world, it is structured as a nonprofit corporation. Vanguard fund shareholders actually own the firm. That means there is no incentive to do anything other than provide the best service at the lowest possible cost.

The company’s gargantuan asset base allows it to enjoy enormous economies of scale. The average mutual fund charges fees six times higher than Vanguard’s.

Six times!

If you have your money in broker-sold funds with front- and back-end loads, 12b-1 fees, and other high costs, you have no one to blame but yourself.

The same is true for brokerage commissions. Prior to May 1, 1975, brokerage commissions were fixed. You had to pay a minimum commission of $49 – equal to $174 today – and cover an average spread of $13, equal to $46 today.

But deregulation and Charles Schwab – with his eponymous brokerage – changed that. The internet flattened costs further still.

Today there are plenty of no-load fund companies and online brokers that will trade individual stocks and exchange-traded funds for you for $5 or less.

Look back through the history of financial markets and you’ll quickly discover that trade executions have never been faster. Spreads have never been thinner. Commissions have never been lower. Monitoring your portfolio has never been easier.

The average investor doesn’t stand a chance? Gimme a break.

How about high investment minimums? That’s certainly the case in some places – like hedge funds and private placements – but you don’t need those investments anyway.

The people peddling them mostly promise the moon and deliver only the craters.

Meanwhile, small investors can put their money to work at Vanguard with minimums as low as $1,000. And if that’s too high, there are other alternatives.

Fidelity Investments, for example, offers zero minimums to open an account, zero minimums on its mutual funds, zero expense index funds and zero account fees.

That wipes out every possible excuse for not taking advantage of the many opportunities available to earn higher returns on your money.

Yet some prefer to moan at opportunity’s door.

I guess the trouble with living in a golden age is some folks walk around complaining about how yellow everything looks.

Good investing,

Alex