by David Bogoslaw
Two years ago, Eric Wolff, 25, was handed the reins of a $5 million family trust after his family saw how badly it had been managed by a full-service brokerage firm. For the four months ended Oct. 31, the $1 million in accounts that he directly oversees has returned 13%, something he attributes to advice he received on Covestor.com, an online investing community, and top-notch research he’s found at other financial Web sites such as Valueinvestorsclub.com and Seekingalpha.com.
People saving for retirement are equally inspired to find the best investment advice. Increasingly, they’re less willing to trust brokers who they believe are motivated by greed and tend to put their own interests ahead of their clients, according to a 2004 study commissioned by the Securities Industry Assn.
Burned Retiree Tries His Hand
Bob Craft, 64, a retired pilot for Delta Air Lines, joined online investing community ValueForum.com in early 2004 after losing 82% of his defined pension when Delta filed for bankruptcy. At the time, his assets were invested in mutual funds. Nervous about his retirement savings, he split his portfolio three ways—between Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, and his own trading account—to compare the investment results.
Craft’s brokers told him that over the long run, he wouldn’t be able to beat their performance because they invested for a living. At the end of the first year, his account had increased 30%, while the money managed by the brokerage firms was up just under 8%. His returns far outpaced those of his brokers in the second year as well. “The highest return every year has been by me, so I just moved all my money to me,” he said, adding that he couldn’t afford his brokers’ low gains.
Craft now manages 100% of his portfolio, spending about six hours a day reading up on stocks he hears about from fellow members at ValueForum and placing orders through Fidelity’s ActiveTraderPro. Year-to-date, his portfolio is up 38.2%, he says, and he no longer worries about his retirement nest egg.
Communities’ Key Asset: Transparency
As more individual investors like Wolff and Craft take control of researching and buying stocks, options, exchange-traded funds, and mutual funds online, they’re joining a new generation of online investing communities to help them reach their goals. So instead of following recommendations from full-service brokers or advisers, for investment advice they’re turning to people who are putting their own money on the line. The online investing communities take the old forums and message boards to the next level by offering tools to verify the track records of and rank up-and-coming investing gurus.
Unlike the social networking platforms TradeKing.com and Zecco.com, these new investing sites don’t execute trades. What they’re selling is the ability to pull in and aggregate trading data from members’ existing brokerage accounts so they can track each person’s total portfolio.
Tracking capability is important because these communities aim to level the playing field, paving the way for a new type of investment adviser, one who’s more credible because you know what stocks he owns. Full-service brokerages and other incumbents are afraid of this, since nontransparency protects their profit margins, says Rikki Tahta, chief executive of New York-based Covestor.
What Investors Want
Before launching publicly in mid-September, CakeFinancial.com, a San Francisco-based online investing community, conducted several focus groups to see what online investors were really seeking. Steven Carpenter, Cake’s founder, said investors want to find peers with the same basic outlook or trading strategy, but better performance results. Cake also learned they want advocacy—the assurance that the customer’s best interests, not the adviser’s, come first—more than education.
Cake tracks stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds and plans to add options and fixed-income trades in the future. While all the trading activity that Cake imports can be measured, members don’t have to reveal their net worth, the amount they’re investing, or the number of shares they’re trading. Eliminating the sensitive information allows users to communicate freely with each other, says Carpenter.
Cake’s service is free, but once membership has grown to at least 10,000, Carpenter says he’ll create low-cost, customized asset-management services based on the aggregated performance metrics of Cake’s members. The idea is to take aggregated performance data and overlay it on a member’s portfolio to show what stocks he should sell and which ones he should hold on to. A premium service would show members the asset allocations of their top 10 model investors and notify them via e-mail whenever one of these people buys or sells a stock, or even adds a stock to his watch list.
Fund Management Insight
For Covestor, the imperatives are verification and evening out the playing field for retail investors. By giving them the same tools that a hedge fund manager has, such as the analytics that help them understand the risk they take vs. the returns they get, and how those compare with their peers, benchmarks, and professionals, Tahta hopes to “burst open the fund management world.”
Covestor is currently a free service, but plans to go to a compensation business model sometime in 2008, under which members would pay a fee to follow top performers’ portfolios, and Covestor would collect a small percentage of the fees charged by its top performers.
When ValueForum launched in late 2003, it offered a flat fee for lifetime membership to the first 200 people to sign up for the service, and within six weeks it had sold out. Through those early adopters telling friends, the community has grown to 1,400 members—most of them age 55 and older and retired with an average portfolio of $1 million, says co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Adam Menzel. Members pay an annual fee of $220 to use the site.
ValueForum doesn’t import and track members’ investment accounts, but it gives members the chance to gauge each other’s performance in other ways, such as quarterly contests where each person chooses three stocks they think will rise during that three-month period.
Growth in Self-Directed Portfolios
Another reason that investors are looking for new ways to exchange financial advice is that broker-advisers are showing less interest in handling portfolios valued under $1 million. That leaves 15 million U.S. households with assets between $100,000 and $1 million looking elsewhere for investing advice. These households’ assets total $4.5 trillion, or 35% of U.S. retail assets, most of which is being serviced by the mutual fund industry, according to a study by Forrester Research published in March, 2006.
Institutional investors are also getting involved in online investing communities. Marketocracy.com, a San Mateo (Calif.)-based investment company that launched in July, 2000, uses a social network to generate the research that informs its funds’ investment decisions.
Marketocracy’s founders, Ken Kam and Mark Taguchi, opted for an alternative to Wall Street research based on what they learned while co-managing a top-rated technology fund at Firsthand Capital Management in the late 1990s. Kam, who had previously worked in the medical devices industry and was running the fund’s health-care/medical portion, found that the best ideas about a company and its business prospects came from people working in that particular industry, not from Wall Street analysts and brokers.
“It’s a process of asking the right questions of the right people,” says Kam. “People on Wall Street aren’t the right people because they rarely have the experience to ask the right questions.”
Kam and Taguchi believe it takes at least five years of tracking a person’s trading decisions to be able to discern their skill level. But after a year and a half, they felt confident enough in the collective wisdom of a select group to pick the top 100 out of about 40,000 members to serve as model portfolio managers for the mutual fund they set up. Six years later, the Marketocracy Masters 100 Fund has roughly $45 million under management and, since inception, has returned 92.42%, compared with a 53.37% return by the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, including dividends, over the same period.
Wisdom of Crowds vs. the Individual
One bone of contention among the next-generation investing communities is whether the financial rewards of following a single individual match those of tapping into the collective wisdom of the crowd. Cake believes in taking what seem to be the best practices among groups of like-minded investors and showing members how they compare to others who are doing better than they are, both as individuals and in the aggregate, says Carpenter. It’s not a herd mentality that Cake enables members to tap into, but the collective wisdom of the few who resemble them and consistently outperform the markets over time, Carpenter says.
To identify such model investors, Cake has a feature that gathers up to 10 years of back data from the trading accounts members have opened at 11 of the top brokerage firms. Data extending over that long a time span are more convincing than the three months’ worth of back data that most other sites import, Carpenter says.
For Covestor’s Tahta, it’s the idiosyncratic thinking of individuals with insights into particular sectors that’s paramount. He cites one member, a doctor in Wisconsin, who has a unique understanding of relative strengths and weaknesses among medical equipment makers. Given all the factors that inform investment decisions, such as goals and risk tolerance, he believes it’s a waste to limit this information to a single investor’s account when it could help others with the same basic approach.
Marketocracy believes it’s beneficial to be able to access the group’s aggregate wisdom and that of individuals at different times for different reasons. Their model portfolio managers, a rotating group of the top 100 performers, tend to know the right questions to ask, based on their trading experience in certain sectors. But they often turn out not to be the people with the right answers, says Kam.
“Through our forums, increasingly what we’re finding is that you want to let everybody post [comments], because the person who has the answer might have a poor portfolio overall but may have the key piece of information that will make a great investor have conviction in the stock idea,” he says.
It’s likely that even without the functional bells and whistles, online communities would attract investors based solely on the quality of the discussions—a welcome refuge from the junk many say is clogging the message boards on financial portals at Yahoo.com and AOL.com. ValueForum even allows members to vote to dispatch off-topic posts to a separate discussion board called the “Coffee Shop” so that the main discussion threads stay focused on investing matters.
Online investing communities have also begun to extend their reach beyond the virtual into the physical world. Take InvestFest, an annual conference organized for and by ValueForum members. Now in its third year, the conference offers presentations not only by members who specialize in certain investing topics, but also by industry professionals such as investment newsletter editors and occasionally a company chief financial officer. Cake is also envisioning local investor cocktail parties around the country in the future.
Many people tout the Internet, and message boards in particular, as tools that are democratizing the flow of information. But for Kam and Taguchi, research by social network is more about meritocracy than democracy. It’s about weighting people’s voices by their track records and giving commensurate attention to the most talented. Says Kam: “Other social networking sites looking to make a play in investing are interesting and share the same goals as us, but it’s going to be years before they have anything substantial to prove to investors that they can add value.”