Reminder: Time is running out to vote for Consumerism Commentary and your favorite financial blogs in this year’s Plutus Awards. Take a moment — after reading this article, naturally — to show your appreciation for the best writing about money management and personal finance outside of mainstream media.
You can be forgiven if you’ve lost faith in the stock market. While over long periods of time, the stock market has historically provided results that could potentially grow your wealth better than any other type of investment, there may be some fundamental differences in the economy that make those results different in the future. Also, after the recession, many investors have the impression that volatility has increased. Individual investors get the impression that the odds are stacked against them, in favor of high-frequency trading and large, institutional investors.
Ninety years from now we may look back on the twenty-first century and see a booming global economy that has expanded into more developing nations, or we may see a world that from a capitalistic growth perspective has past its peak. That, in combination with disdain for Wall Street, may be the threat that is fueling the public’s avoidance of the stock market.
The returns for which the stock market is famous came as a result of investing in an economy with room to grow, so for those only concerned about growth potential, the solution may just be a matter of broadening a profile far beyond the shores of the United States. For those preferring to avoid the sock market, developing an investing plan that’s likely going to help you save for the future is going to be difficult.
Ron Lieber, a money-focused columnist with the New York Times whom I’ve mentioned here often, assembled a financial plan for investors who are completely fed up with the stock market. It’s a plan that, as much as possible, avoids not only investing in the stock market but working with companies that trade on the stock market. I wrote about mutual insurance companies and how they might offer a benefit to policyholders over public companies, and that same structure exists for investment companies. Evan from My Journey to Millions pointed out that Vanguard is the investment equivalent of a mutual insurance company. Vanguard is not traded on the stock market, it is owned by its mutual funds, and therefore by all the investors in its mutual funds. The company’s profits are used to return dividends to its investors and to lower management fees.
When owners and investors are the same, companies can’t take advantage of one group to benefit another. That’s the benefit in theory, but whether it is true in actuality is something that would need to be studied. Regardless, it may give investors a better feeling about the company with which they are investing. For that reason, Lieber recommends investing with Vanguard, USAA, or TIAA-CREF. Vanguard and USAA also offer ordinary retail banking as well, so you can replace your for-profit, fee-raising Wells Fargo or Bank of America with these customer-owned companies for a Wall Street-free banking experience.
If you’re on the “Main Street” side of the debate with Wall Street, you may be interested in investing in your community while seeking long-term financial returns. Lieber recommends looking at municipal bonds as a partial replacement for stock market mutual funds. While cities and states rely on bonds to attract investors, particularly when tax revenues aren’t enough to fund infrastructure improvements or economic development projects, mutual funds that invest broadly in municipal funds can add social responsibility and profit to your portfolio.
Municipal bonds, however, are cozy with Wall Street. Large, for-profit investment companies often work closely with state and local governments to manage the individual bonds. Governments would not be able to get the capital they need without these banks, and the companies have an opportunity to make quite a bit of money from the deals with governments. This shouldn’t dissuade you from investing in municipal bonds. Economies improve when the financial institutions within those economies thrive. If you’re vehemently opposed to anything that might give an advantage to a company identified with Wall Street, however, municipal bonds won’t give you much separation.
Lieber urges readers to look at real estate as an option for long-term investment, but he stays clear of discussing the investment as a surefire method of building wealth fast. Have you noticed that the gurus who formerly pushed real estate investment as the key to building wealth have been all but silent over the past few years? Perhaps I’ve tuned them out, but the late-night infomercials pushing real estate seminars and get rich quick schemes seem to have quieted down.
The focus for real estate is on rental income and eliminating the mortgage fast rather than building a real estate empire using leverage from one property to another. In fact, if you want to avoid Wall Street in your investment plan, you would have a more difficult time making use of that leverage. You’ll need to lean on credit unions for mortgages. You may end up with good rates, or you may not even qualify for investment mortgages with a credit union. These types of institutions, in an effort to protect their customers, may be more conservative when it comes to lending than banks, many of whom bundle their mortgages as investments for other banks and off-load the risk.
The proper way to view real estate as an investment opportunity is to look at the potential for rental income. It’s possible to earn a living as a landlord, but it could be a significant amount of work identifying the right properties, the right locations, and the right tenants, and you’re relying on some luck in terms of timing. There’s always the risk of a good tenant becoming a deadbeat. With no mortgage on the properties, though, the formula for long-term profit is much nicer, and it can be done outside of the finance industry.
Peer-to-peer lending can provide good returns if you happen to live in a state that has relaxed regulations. This is still a new industry, and it’s clearly designed to sidestep the mainstream financial industry. Peer-to-peer lending cuts out the middleman, and that middleman happens to be a very powerful industry. Bank executives don’t publicly acknowledge peer-to-peer lending as a threat, but the grassroots industry is a growing highway of financial transactions without Wall Street toll-takers.
Don’t believe that no one is getting rich off the plight of people looking for better rates for loan consolidation, as many peer-to-peer borrowers are. Prosper and Lending Club are backed by venture capital firms that, while they aren’t public, are certainly designed for profit.
For me, the biggest drawback of peer-to-peer lending is that the investments aren’t liquid. Invest in the stock market, and if you need the money in a pinch, you can sell your stocks and get the real value of your wealth back in cash minus transaction fees and the spread between the bid and ask prices. With your money tied in peer-to-peer loans and call your investment before the loans (or the basket of loans) have reached maturity, you may have to settle for receiving back less than you invested. This same is true if the value of stocks decline at an inopportune time, but I see the lack of liquidity as a problem people tend to ignore, particularly when they compare peer-to-peer investing with the low returns of savings accounts.
All of these options focus on using the money you already have to create more wealth. This type of “passive income” is all the rage. Letting your money do the work for you is much more appealing for many people than earning money with their labor. The top 1 percent in terms of wealth in this country earns most of its income through investments, not from a salary. Yet, one of the most successful method of building a financial future for yourself is starting a successful business. It requires time and effort — more than you might put into a salaried job — and it isn’t for everyone. It’s risky, and there’s a significant likelihood of losing money with a new business, but the rewards can far outpace investing in the stock market with 15 percent of your salary.
Will you try to avoid the stock market in your investing plans? My impression is that most Consumerism Commentary readers see an overall pullback from the stock market as an opportunity to find good investments when fewer people are looking. I’m not sure how well that approach will play out, though, with institutional investors and computers running high-frequency trading programs ruling the market, but it’s nice to think that any downturns today provide great opportunities over the long term. That’s what I’m still counting on.
Updated February 26, 2013 and originally published August 6, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.