Join the Crowd: Manage Your Own Investments

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On Monday, Karen Damato wrote a lead piece in the Wall Street Journal, “A New Era for Do-It-Yourself Investing,” reporting that investors are taking charge of their investments, yet they are not going it alone. (Readers may meet a pay-wall with the link.) Many investors are using a hybrid approach.They are moving away from having a person or firm control their accounts, yet they are still seeking a-la-carte advice and using on-line tools to guide and validate their own investment decisions.

Investors often begin to take charge when they change jobs or retire. Their 401(k)s or similar accounts can be rolled over, and it’s a convenient time to take a new path. Yet there are pitfalls—companies sometimes offer misleading information about the costs of various products.

Companies like Fidelity, Vanguard, and Charles Schwab are thriving in the rollover market. They offer many options for the self-directed crowd, including on-line calculators to help set retirement savings goals, set up a budget, and project retirement income, and estimate the probability of outliving your money. The web sites contain articles and news pieces to help investors.

At Vanguard, investors with $50,000 to $500,000 invested can buy a detailed financial plan for $250. A financial advisor charging one percent per year would be charging between $500 and $5,000 per year for services that may or may not include a good financial plan. If investors have more than $500,000 invested at Vanguard, a financial plan and personal assistance from financial planners are free.

The American Association of Individual Investors publishes a special issue of their journal each year that lists and describes “Top Investment Websites.” The last such issue was November 2012. These journals are behind a pay wall, but people can join AAII with a basic membership of $29 annually (I believe), which gives members access to current and past journal issues.

The crash of 2008 seems to have accelerated the trend toward self management. Many investors who had outsourced their investments to the care of professionals were “massively disillusioned” by their performance. Advisers may not have understood the products they sold, and often seemed to care more about their own income. Stories about Bernie Madoff didn’t help. One do-it-yourselfer comments that no one cares about his money as much as he does. He and his wife have a financial plan prepared by Vanguard, which they update annually.

In Damato’s WSJ article, a small “vote-see-results” question asks readers if the bear market of 2007–2009 led them to rely “more” or “less” on financial advisers, and the results, as of now, show about two-to-one voters saying “less.”

One research firm using focus groups of investors between 40 and 60 years old, reported a common sentiment—that “relying solely on an adviser … is for dinosaurs.” Now it’s estimated that between one-third and two-thirds of investors are piloting themselves. Merrill Edge, the firm we reported on some months ago, is actively luring this market of self managers who want consults and validation.

These trends fit well with the recommendations given here at Later Living. In my original writing in February 2012, the last step of Later Living’s six-step approach was:

6.  Study investment literature and practices. Consult an adviser. Perhaps join an investment group. Over time retirees can adjust their practice to better suit their growing knowledge.

The key idea is to seek competent, low-cost advice that can gradually help an investor gain ability and confidence. The number and variety of opportunities for support are increasing daily, and investors are finding it easier to slowly build personal knowledge for their own use. The crowd of self-managers is growing.