On the west coast and unsure of where I was going last weekend, I nearly drove off the road several times.
I wasn’t lost or confused on my way to give a chat to the Seattle chapter of the American Association of Individual Investors. I was listening to financial talk radio and barely able to control myself.
The show was “Trading and Investing with Ryan and Larry,” and the host Ryan Cook – Larry was out for the weekend, apparently – works with Online Trading Academy, a company that trains people who want to learn how to trade. It’s not cheap; while you start with a free half-day seminar and are likely to move up to an inexpensive three-day course, the goal is to get investors to spend many thousands of dollars becoming part of a trading community and becoming expert at trading stocks, options, futures and more.
Every trading/training firm has its detractors. Having written the “Stupid Investment of the Week” column for a decade, I’ve sat through countless free seminars designed to make individuals think they can make fortunes as traders. That includes sessions run by OTA; it’s important to note I didn’t find them deserving of being written up in that column (which was discontinued several years ago).
I also worked for a short time as editor at RagingBull.com, a site run by traders also in the business of selling training, an experience that has made me more appreciative and less jaded about trading than most journalists.
Still, listening to a financial schlock jock pushing misinformation got me riled up.
No one lost money just tuning in, but the average investor isn’t a trader, doesn’t want to be a trader and is likely to blow up their portfolio trying, so its bad news when they hear shoddy information and negative selling on the investments they actually rely on.
My late father once shared with me a book about sales tactics that talked about the steps a slick sales rep might take to win an unsuspecting consumer over. Ryan ran the whole playbook in his discussion of mutual funds.
The casual listener wouldn’t know the game being played or recognized the inconsistencies and fallacies in the case.
Ryan harped on some common themes:
— Mutual funds are expensive, with expense ratios that can be as high as 2 percent or more. He used 2 percent, a serious drag on results, in his examples.
Yet it has been decades since most investors paid anything close to that level. The average stock fund today charges roughly 1 percent, but if you look at what investors pay based on how they actually invest, most people are paying closer to 0.6 percent on their stock funds.
There are now mutual funds with expense ratios of zero. You wouldn’t expect the host to use that level in examples, but quoting costs at more than three times what investors typically pay is misleading.
— Funds aren’t as diversified as investors think. Ryan cited eggs-in-one-basket thinking where an investor buys funds to achieve diversification, but because the stocks within a fund and a market or sector often move in synch, the impact of diversification is muted. The fund rides the market rollercoaster the same way an individual stock might.
That’s not an argument against funds, but encouragement to buy more in order to diversify investment styles and categories.
Moreover, even if a fund is not particularly diversified, it typically holds more stocks/ETFs than an average trader deals in. While the trader can swim against the market easily, that’s more about strategy than about a fund’s lacking diversification.
— Funds have always been flawed and unpopular. He noted that the first mutual fund – the Massachusetts Investors trust – was started in 1924 and that early trusts were later re-branded as funds because consumers hated them and didn’t, well, trust them.
Mutual funds remain the nation’s most-popular investment vehicle and have been democratizing the investment process since the beginning. Most of the original funds changed formats because they were started ahead of the Investment Company Act of 1940, which is the legislation truly created the modern mutual fund. The change was structural and not a marketing gimmick.
— Funds fail to beat their index benchmark. Ryan quoted outdated stats about how many active managers fail to beat the Standard & Poor’s 500. There is no denying that passive management – buying and holding indexes – works over the long haul.
But when traders use indexes and trade in exchange-traded funds, they’re being active managers. If pros can’t beat the benchmark, it’s fair to wonder whether amateurs should expect to do better.
All investors must overcome the potential costs of decision-making and emotion. Typically, that involves becoming less active as a trader, not more.
— Funds are illiquid; if the market tanks, you might not be able to get out “now.”
While this is a real advantage of trading, it’s also a misdirect.
Fund investors who value minute-by-minute liquidity can use ETFs, which trade that way.
The bigger issue is that lack of daily liquidity hasn’t hurt traditional fund investors.
Ryan harkened back to Black Monday 1987, when the Dow Jones industrial Average lost 22.6 percent, suggesting investors were trapped in funds as they tanked. Yet no one investing on Black Monday has ever said decades later that they couldn’t retire on time because they were stuck riding the day out in their mutual funds.
The ability to trade “right now” only matters to someone who wants to exercise that ability. Most people don’t.
If you scan the airwaves and podcasts and come across investment ideas that try to change your thinking, listen to hear if they’re pushing something truly different or just ripping other investments as flawed.
Any investment presentation should aim to match the right mindset to the best tools and strategy to reach desired investment results.
When someone says they can improve investment results but stretches the truth and defies reality to make talking points, raise your guard higher than ever. Otherwise, their words might run you off the road you’re on heading towards financial success.