When best-selling author Michael Lewis went on 60 Minutes this spring and claimed, “the stock market is rigged,” it struck a nerve. Many people already suspected the Wall Street deck was stacked against them, and now an expert, with his book Flash Boys, had confirmed their worst fears.
Lewis, known for his groundbreaking coverage of sports (most notably Moneyball) not only managed to blindside Wall Street with the allegations of improper trading, but also smashed his already impressive book sales records. Defenders of the common man were outraged, traders accused him of sensationalism, and at least three law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, launched investigations. So as books continue to fly off the shelves, Congress mulls hearings, and G-men face off against the Hermès-tie set, what does all this mean for you?
First, Flash Boys: The title refers to trading strategies in which lightning- fast computers can see other stock orders before they’re filled. Lewis says that the computers are programmed to jump in front of those orders, buying the shares and then selling them at a tiny premium. Over time, this and other speed-enabled strategies reap billions in profits. (In fact, when human brokers jump in front of others’ stock orders, it’s a crime called “front running.”)
While the allegations are serious, they’re nothing new. Financial pros have always exploited an information advantage to make money. In the 1790s, wily New York financiers learned that the secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was hatching a plan to pay off our young nation’s debts in full. According to Stephen Mihm, a history professor at the University of Georgia, the flash boys of that era scrambled to buy up government bonds on the cheap from clueless country folk who figured the certificates of debt were practically worthless. When the government paid off its loans, the bankers made out like bandits. “In the succeeding years, speculators continued to act on the principle that if they could see price discrepancies before anyone else, they could make a profit,” Mihm wrote.
Two hundred-plus years later, taking on Wall Street at its own game is like having 10 of your fraternity brothers over for a few beers and then lining up against the Seattle Seahawks. You’re totally outmatched. When you buy a stock, there has to be someone on the other side of the trade. There’s a good chance that guy has a staff of full-time researchers who know every publicly available fact about the company, and well-connected bankers who learned the nonpublic stuff on the back nine. If you’ve ever wondered if insider trading really goes on, just find a company that has recently jumped in price on big news, and look at the stock chart for the days leading up to the announcement. That sharp pre-announcement rise is not a coincidence.
Your disadvantage extends far beyond stock trading. Complicated financial products such as variable annuities and whole life insurance policies are lousy investments for you but great commission-generators for the guys selling them. You’ll never win an argument with them over the merits of the product—they do this every day—but here’s a tip: Financial advisors who are paid a flat fee instead of a commission never seem to recommend these products to their clients.
So how do you beat “rigged markets”? Strip away all the pros’ advantages. Never ever buy a complicated, expensive product. Don’t buy anything where the guy on the other side of the trade gets an advantage from being faster or having more information. Here’s how:
Name your price
I don’t recommend buying individual stocks, but if you do, set the price at which you’re willing to pay with what’s known as a “limit order.” That way no one can nudge your price higher through front- running or other means. This is a bigger issue for institutional investors trying to make multimillion-dollar purchases, but it could affect you, too, especially if you’re buying a thinly traded stock.
Keep in mind that the firestorm ignited by Flash Boys was over the fact that high-speed traders might push the price of a stock up by a penny. Until the 1970s, stocks traded in intervals of 12.5 cents. In other words, today’s “rigged market” is far cheaper than the best deal your dad could have gotten. Commissions were deregulated in 1975 and have been coming down ever since; now a trade that would have cost $800 back then will run you $8.
Free is good
Even while some on Wall Street continue to dream up new ways to separate you from your savings, others are engaged in a price war that’s making it ever cheaper to be an investor. Brokers Fidelity and Charles Schwab offer exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—similar to mutual funds, except you can trade them more easily— that you can buy without paying commission. Vanguard has been slashing fees on its own ETFs and mutual funds for years, forcing competitors’ prices down with them. The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund charges a fee of one-twentieth of a percent, which means you can invest $10,000 and own all the stocks in the U.S. market for a whopping fee of $5. Want to take a flyer on Russia? Stocks are cheap there. The Market Vectors Russia ETF charges just over half of one percentage point. Even if your father could have bought a basket of emerging market stocks back in the day, he would have had to pay through the nose for the privilege.
Financial advice is also getting cheaper, as a bunch of start-up advisory services, including MarketRiders, SigFig, and FutureAdvisor now charge as little as $10 a month for unbiased advice. These guys are blowing up the old models and helping investors grab the low-hanging fruit. One reason money management seems so complicated is because the traditional financial companies liked it that way— they could charge you big bucks to help you navigate the maze. The newcomers are like today’s Apple to 1990’s PC.
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Benefit from insider trading
Once you accept that frequent trad- ing and paying high fees is a great way to transfer your wealth to Wall Street, the solution is fairly obvious: Invest in low-cost, broad index funds, which are dirt cheap and own all the stocks in the market. In addition to being inexpensive (honestly, it’s probably their greatest attribute), index funds can insulate you from many of Wall Street’s sins. They rarely trade, which means the flash boys have less opportunity to skim pennies off the top. Another benefit of that reduced trading is lower taxes. And you own every company in the market, so when those wily bankers start bidding up the price of a stock because they have inside information, you can savor the gains—you already own it!
Go ahead, read Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys—it’s a good story. And enjoy the feeling of knowing that the flash boys can’t touch you.