Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Financial Advice for People Who Are Not Super-Rich

The 52-year-old Journal
 of Financial Education
In 1969 I moved to New York City with a Ph.D. in hand to be a finance professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

During the next few years I was continually surprised by the gap between the sophistication of financial theories and the primitive misunderstanding of financial markets among the general public.

In 1972 I decided to do something to help improve financial literacy and  started a new journal, the The Journal of Financial Education. I wrote a letter to members of an association of university-level finance teachers and got a response rate of about 10 percent.  Now, 52 years later, the journal is still going strong.

At that time, a popular view was the idea that the stock market was a "random walk". Princeton Professor Burton Malkiel's book with those words in the title appeared in 1973. Getting an edge on the market legally was thought to be difficult or impossible. What carried investors was a general rise in the stock market, not so much anyone's ability to predict a particular stock. Along with the potential of more return went greater risk and at the end of the day you paid for your greater potential with more volatility, and one balanced off the other.

My view today is that it is possible to do better than the average investor, through methods both legal and illegal:
  • Better and faster information and execution of trades
  • Smarter investment analysis.
  • Activities that are illegal but are not enforced. 
  • Activities that should be illegal but are not.
Michael Lewis's new book on the Flash Boys shows how front-running makes huge profits even if the advance information is only a matter of fractions of seconds. Traders make a profit by being ahead of the market. Large profits are possible at the expense of slower traders.

The problem for the small investor is figuring out how they should proceed, with questions like:
  • Who are the smarter money managers?
  • Are they leaving anything for their clients after they take their fees and profit shares?
People who can't beat the market when they pick stocks on their own are unlikely to be able to pick with any assurance the best money market managers, offering reasonable rates. Index funds came into fashion, led by Vanguard and its founder Jack Bogle, as a way of keeping down the cost of mutual funds. That's one option, minimize trading and money management fees.

Finding financial advisers without a stake in your decision are another alternative. But these advisers in the past have only been interested in middle-sized and large investors. Now there are new start-ups that offer financial advice for smaller investors.

Here's a description of one of them called FutureAdvisor that looks interesting.

Three cheers. It's about time that the little guys had more choices in how they are guided in making decisions.