Do You Really Want to Learn Investing from These Guys?

By Susan Antilla AAA

An unlikely new champion of the little guy and gal says it’s heading into 2014 with plans to make things right for the small investor. Before you get too excited, check to see if your wallet is still in your purse.

The effort to do right by Mom and Pop comes not from the bleeding hearts at some consumer-friendly advocacy group, but from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA, the Wall Street lobbying group that’s often on the other side of the proposals that investor advocates are rooting for. With an institutional straight face, SIFMA unveiled its new battle cries - “Customers First” and “Helping Main Street Prosper” among them - before 900 industry types gathered at the group’s annual meeting in New York last November.

Never mind that the chatter about devotion to customers at the confab came amid other talk about too much regulation and the evils of populism. The financial industry’s trade group is on a mission, and the public relations tour de force begins this month with the launch of a capital markets literacy effort that SIFMA calls “Invest it Forward.” 

Wall Street is apparently so freaked out by the loss of confidence of Main Street since the 2008 financial crisis that it’s willing to get out there and meet with the little people. (See "The 2007-2008 Financial Crisis in Review.")

Stock Market Games

I mean that figuratively and literally. SIFMA is putting together a curriculum that will be used by industry executives to give one-hour presentations on financial topics to school kids, said Cheryl Crispen, executive vice president for communications and marketing at SIFMA. The group already sends volunteers to speak with students who trade $100,000 virtual portfolios in its popular Stock Market Game, played by 700,000 fourth-to-twelfth graders each year, according to SIFMA.

The attendees at the New York Marriott Marquis event in November were given pamphlets that appealed for volunteers to visit with the tykes in their educational milieu to help “create an atmosphere of authenticity and excitement about the industry,” as one flyer said.

If nothing else, a visit from a rich Wall Street guy - the honchos are of course mostly guys - might prompt a practical personal finance discussion of where you need to work if you want to dress in $2,000 suits. Goodness knows that kids these days need to match their lifestyle expectations with careers that can support their expectations.

In fairness to the group that the activists at Occupy the SEC once called “Darth Vader,” some good has resulted from SIFMA's efforts. Lewis Mandell, professor emeritus at University of Buffalo's management school, began measuring the results of financial literacy education in 1997, and said in an interview that play-money stock market games like the one SIFMA runs actually turn out kids who are “significantly more financially literate” than those who don’t play the game.

That, though, is no guarantee that games run by SIFMA or anyone else don’t get little traders a bit too enamored of finance’s casino mode. A fifth grader from East Brunswick, N.J., took to the stage at the Marriott to receive her SIFMA award for investment prowess, and said the teamwork approach to investing sometimes cramped her style. “I hated when my team was arguing because we were just wasting time, and time wasted is virtual money lost,” she said. Could somebody spring for a copy of Graham and Dodd’s “Security Analysis” for this child?

The precocious East Brunswick trader may be a winning ambassador for SIFMA, but Americans as a group are not so sanguine about the industry that imploded and then needed their money for a bailout.

Profit from TARP

At the rah-rah-for-Main-Street meeting, SIFMA's former chief executive Judd Gregg argued that lucky taxpayers had gleaned a $27 billion profit from the 2008 TARP program, more formally known as the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out the banking industry after Lehman Brothers and several other financial institutions went under thanks to their ill-advised investments in mortgage backed securities. (See "Case Study: The Collapse of Lehman Brothers.")

It’s a stretch to think taxpayers wanted to take the TARP risk in the first place and it was a coin-toss as to whether they’d profit. Even five years later, there’s little love lost between the public and the industry that brought us to our financial knees. Two years before the crisis, 41% of Americans polled by Harris Interactive agreed that people on Wall Street “are as honest and moral as other people.” In 2012, that number had declined to 28%.

The public’s opinion of Wall Street is playing out in its investment decisions. New sales of mutual funds declined from $26.1 billion in 2008 to $16.8 billion in 2012, according to the Investment Company Institute, trade group for the fund industry. In the same period, the number of funds dropped from 8,022 to 7,596. (See "Are Mutual Funds a Relic?")

It all makes for a compelling backdrop to inspire ambitious public relations efforts, and SIFMA will be planting seeds of goodwill with investors and business people at Rotary Clubs and local Chambers of Commerce as the year unfolds. Separate from the beefing up of its efforts with school kids, SIFMA has launched something called “Our Partnership With You,” a feel-good effort anchored by a 900-word document that tells investors they have the right to such things as fair and ethical treatment, but have the responsibility to read and understand the sometimes indecipherable investment documents their brokers provide.

First stop on the “partnership” road show will be Minneapolis and St. Paul in late February or early March, said Crispen. Memphis, St. Louis and an undetermined location in Florida will follow in March and April. 

Mandell said that while stock market games such as SIFMA's can be linked with a rise in students’ financial literacy; other literacy efforts have been a bust. Although Mandell was a believer in literacy programs when he started researching the programs more than 20 years ago, over time he discovered that most programs had either no effect, or were followed by declines in literacy.

Problem with Funding

The problem could be linked to the source of their funding: Most literacy programs have benefactors who aren’t necessarily interested in telling the whole story. “From almost the beginning of the financial literacy movement, it was funded primarily by the financial services industry,” Mandell says.

With that in mind, ask yourself this: What’s the upside for Wall Street to pass on wisdom about the merits of avoiding expensive products with hidden fees? Or advice about the most effective ways to find out if your broker has been fleecing customers? Or impart that there’s a slew of studies that have shown that investors do best by buying an index fund - preferably from a no-load outfit that doesn’t even need brokers to enter your orders?

At that SIFMA meeting, big shots like Mary Jo White, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and former President Bill Clinton graced a stage with a huge backdrop that read “Helping Americans succeed. Helping Main Street Prosper.” Before you buy into the notion that Wall Street is having a kumbaya moment with its customers, consider Mandell’s take: Wall Street “has piled into financial literacy” because it’s looking to send a message that education can remove the need for regulation. 

And if you wind up in one of those Rotary Club meetings with a SIFMA representative extolling the virtues of his industry, ask him/her whether maybe next year s/he’ll put you and some other Main Street folks up on that stage. Wall Street could use a dose of plain talk from real people who think its practices stink.

The Bottom Line

The Wall Street lobbying group SIFMA has become an unlikely champion for the average person-on-the-street investor, and has put money behind educational programs aimed at teaching people of all ages about making wise investment choices. The move comes none too late, as consumer confidence in Wall Street and its denizens is at a low.

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