Investing is confusing as the media hypes all the wrong messages.
It is funny (and sad) to hear some comments from folks about investing. People say things like, "It's all a scam!" or "No wonder the market keeps going down!" or "I just don't know how to invest!". And given the normative cues that the financial media and the trading companies provide, it is no wonder people feel this way.
Some folks have been burned so often that they believe our economy is "imaginary" and that only a "real" economy of bartering will survive the "coming meltdown". Ron Paul is one of those who believe this sort of thing. And he is selling a "financial survival kit" of course - to those same people who got burned over and over again by other con-jobs in the past.
Why do people feel this way? Why are ordinary Americans mystified by our financial system? The answer in short is, poor normative cues. What we are told to watch and concentrate on, is only a small portion of the overall financial system. As a result of these skewed norms, we have a distorted or inaccurate view of the markets and investing. And perhaps this is by design.
What sort of things am I talking about? Here are just a few:
The Daily DOW: Every day, the financial channels and sites hype what the DJIA (or the S&P 500 or the NASDAQ or whatever) did today, or even in the last hour. If you think about the "stock market" chances are you think of that ticker, which appears on most investment pages and financial channels, giving you the latest prices on various stocks. Who reads this? No one. No one, that is, other than stock traders buying or selling a particular stock at a particular time. And even then, they look at individual prices of stocks on computer screens, not some "ticker" scrolling at the bottom of the CNBC page.
So why do they have the ticker? Back in the day of ticker-tape, it was the only way to check the prices on stocks in real-time. Today we have computers. The "ticker" is just a decoration at this point, something to fill up the screen and make things look busy and important. And the normative cue is this: The price of a stock is everything and you should concentrate on stock prices on a day-to-day basis if not a minute-by-minute basis.
That, of course, would be the worst way to go about investing.
Big Losses, Small Gains: Many folks who don't invest will tell you the stock market is in the tank and that the economy (the "Obama Economy") is in ruins. Nothing is further from the truth, of course. But why do people think this? Again, normative cues at work. When the stock market drops dramatically - by a percent or more, it is reported widely in the press. But a gain of 5% over several weeks or months barely gets a mention. Only after years of gains, does someone point out, "hey, this is the largest bull market since...." and even then, the story is couched in terms of "when will it crash?"
So the average person thinks the market is doing badly - or far worse than it actually is - even when the market is doing well. I have had people tell me that the market did poorly under Clinton (of course, he's a Democrat, right?) and then even worse under the first part of the Bush Presidency. And it goes without saying that Obama screwed everything up. If this was all true, the DJIA should be at 50 right now. But of course, it isn't.
Dividends: You never see a ticker for dividends. In fact, on most financial websites, it is hard to find information about dividends. The same is true for the financial channels, who never mention dividends, other than once a year when they trot out the "dividend geek" and have him bite the head off a live chicken for entertainment value. Then it's back to share price, share price, share price!
I have accounts with multiple sites, and only one of them, E*TRADE, even gave you a concise listing of your dividend payments (and projected future payments). But even that site presented your overall "profit" on a stock in terms of share price only. So, for example, if you bought 100 shares of ACME for $1000 which paid a 5% dividend, and ten years later, you sold it for $1000, your online trading site would show a 0% gain overall (which in terms of capital gains, is true) but would not present clearly that you made $500 on your $1000 investment in dividends - a 50% profit if you will, over ten years.
Most financial sites hide dividend information. You might find it in a monthly statement (on page six) every quarter. Financial news programs rarely mention it, as noted above, other than on slow news days. But dividends are a big part of investing in stocks, particularly these days, when treasuries are paying so poorly and yet many companies are paying 3-6% in dividends.
Note also there is something called the effective dividend rate that is never, ever discussed, as far as I can tell. For example, I bought a stock for $100 a share that paid a 3% dividend. Pretty paltry rate of return, right? Well, today the stock is worth $200 a share and still paying a 3% dividend. But since I only paid $100 a share for the stock, not only do I have a nice capital gain here, but my effective dividend rate on my investment is now 6%. That's not bad in this day and age.
Hype: The financial media hypes things like IPOs because they are interesting - something is happening in real-time and it generates viewer interest. They also tend to hype tech stocks as they are sexy and can shoot up and down in price. There is no "story" about a company whose share price slowly goes up over time and cranks out a nice dividend - a company that is not run by crooks or MBAs looking to cash out. These quiet companies are all over the place, but never mentioned by the media.
So your average Joe reads about the WILGROWCO IPO and puts $5000 into it and loses half his money and then says the whole thing is a scam. Which would be true if the entire investment market consisted of over-hyped tech IPOs. But it does not.
Stocks, Stocks, Stocks: To hear the financial channels and investment sites tell it, the only thing to invest in is stocks, either directly or through mutual funds. But there are other investment instruments out there, of course. You can buy bonds - debts basically. And some of these bonds can do better than stocks - even stocks in the same company. I bought GE stock and GE debt. The debt is worth more than I paid for it. The stock it not. Tech company stocks never pay dividends, but tech company bonds pay interest. And when a company goes bankrupt, stock holders are wiped out, while bond owners may get some payback on their money or stock in a new company formed from the wreckage of the old (such as happened with GM).
There are a host of things to invest in, from REITs, to municipal bonds, to government securities, to insurance vehicles, to Real Estate, to Annuities, to, well, even gold and other commodities. Not all are suited for every investor in every market, and it goes without saying that investing all in one thing is never a good idea. But it doesn't hurt to shop around and explore different options.
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The 401(k) and IRA laws have forced us all to become investors - or end up destitute in our old age. It is an interesting experiment to be sure, but one fraught with peril. And the largest peril, as I see it, is that a large number of people in the US either choose not to invest at all (but rather buy a new Jet-Ski) or invest poorly in over-hyped schemes that end up costing them money instead of making money.
Joe Blow buys gold at $1500 and now has lost nearly 1/3 of his "investment". He bought a mini-mansion with a liar's loan ten years ago and lost that. Before that, it was Enron stock, or maybe some dot-com IPO in the 1990's. Today, he hopes to make it all back with some new tech IPO coming out tomorrow.
He's not investing, he's gambling. And all gamblers eventually lose, the longer they play, particularly when they constantly play sucker's bets.
Sadly, our educational system today fails to teach even how to balance a checkbook or how compound interest can make money for you, over time. I know I never learned such things in High School, college, or even law school. Finance is something of a mystery to most of us, and what they "teach" us on television are all horribly wrong things.
What I have learned is that there is no real secret to success - no short cut or insider deal to making lots of money. Just put aside a little bit every week, every month, every year, and invest in a panoply of different things - some conservative, some more aggressive. Walk away from anything hyped on the television - once an "inside tip" is broadcast to 300 million people, it no longer is an inside tip.
And when something sounds too-good-to-be-true, like flipping houses for 30% profits in a week without doing any work, or stocks that shoot up in value while the underlying fundamentals of the company remain unchanged, then just walk away.
Walk away from the hype and disinformation.