Each year at Investopedia we take a look back at the most popular financial topics that captured our readers' attention. The top terms on our site for 2019 were influenced by everything from presidential debates and data breaches to celebrities and economic theories, and this year's winner is no surprise. Our number one term for 2019 is Negative Interest Rates, the phenomenon of getting paid to borrow, and taking a loss on loaning.
With more than 22 million monthly readers and over 30,000 articles on our site, we have an unparalleled window into what financial and business topics are most important to millions of people around the world. Our data science team examined historical data to identify which topics had the most notable influx of visitors over the past 12 months, and broke down their interest month-by-month in the following chart.
1. Negative Interest Rates
The number one most popular Investopedia term of 2019 was Negative Interest Rate. Behind the stock market's record-breaking year was a far less confident network of central banks across the global economy. In 2019, they continued to lower interest rates to stimulate their economies in light of ongoing trade wars and cyclical slowdowns. Many countries, including Japan, Switzerland and Sweden, instituted negative interest rates, meaning lenders actually paid a small percentage for the privilege of lending money rather than earn interest on their loan. While this means investors get a negative yield, negative interest rates do make borrowing costs for businesses and consumers ultra-low, which can stimulate more economic activity like hiring and capital expenditures.
2. Dark Web
Our personal data has become the currency of the 21st century for a certain set of digital thieves, and the Dark Web is the exchange where it is bought and sold. There were multiple data breaches in 2019 where personal data was exposed, collected and distributed throughout the darkest corners of the internet.
- In November, thousands of subscribers to Disney+ had their accounts hacked shortly after signing up for the service and learned later that their personal information was being sold on the Dark Web for $3 a profile.
- Dunkin' Donuts, Fortnite, Sprint and the Dow Jones were all among high profile companies that were hacked this year. In some cases, customer's personal information was captured and resold on the Dark Web.
- In India, 1.3 million bank customers had their credit and debit card information stolen and their personal information was found for sale on the website Joker's Stash. That followed similar events in the U.S. where data from nearly 8 million Americans was stolen and offered for sale on the same site.
As our readers found out that their own personal information may have been compromised through one of the several high profile data breaches in 2019, they came to us to find out where it may have ended up.
The Financially Independent, Retire Early, aka FIRE movement is not new, but it had more than a few spikes in 2019. Hundreds of articles, books and online videos were created, promising strategies for retiring by the age of 35 without the headache of a nine-to-five job. While it is possible for some, extreme early retirement is unrealistic for many.
The motivations behind the movement are understandable—we are living longer, pensions are evaporating and working for the same company your whole life is unheard of—but there is rarely a short cut to financial independence. Beginning to save and invest at an early age, setting realistic goals, and maintaining financial discipline are still the best bets at growing a nest egg large enough to support a comfortable retirement, though you'll likely have to retire a little later than 35.
4. Conventional Mortgage
A conventional mortgage is any type of home buyer’s loan that is not offered or secured by the government. The 30-year fixed mortgage was red hot in 2019 as mortgage rates in the U.S. continued to fall following three consecutive interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve. That brought new buyers to the market and prompted existing homeowners to refinance existing mortgages at lower rates. On the other hand, more potential homebuyers, especially younger ones, are questioning homeownership entirely.
While we're more than ten years removed from the financial crisis that began as a housing crisis, potential homebuyers are waiting longer to take the plunge, especially in cities like San Francisco, Austin and Charlotte, where home prices continue to skyrocket.
5. Negative Bond Yield
Negative interest rates walk hand-in-hand with negative bond yields, and made an appearance across the globe in 2019. There is now more than $17 trillion in negative-yielding-debt around the world, with some 30% of all investment-grade securities now bearing sub-zero yields. This means investors who acquire the debt and hold it to maturity are guaranteed to make a loss. So why in the world are investors willing to buy negative yielding debt? For a few reasons. Some investors—particularly big ones—must allocate part of their portfolios to the bond market, no matter the yield, as part of their allocation strategy. For others, bonds at any yield are considered a safer option for stashing cash than taking a chance on stocks.
6. Exempt Employee
The "Gig Economy" and labor laws collided in 2019 as the State of California passed Assembly Bill 5, which could require Uber, Lyft and other 'gig' companies to treat workers as employees. Exempt employee refers to a category of employees set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act. They do not receive overtime pay, nor do they qualify for the minimum wage. You can see how California's new law could wreck the economics of ride-sharing companies and other businesses that rely on independent contractors. As health care and other benefit costs increase, more and more companies, including Amazon, are shifting employees to contractor roles, making them exempt from benefits they used to enjoy. If Assembly Bill 5 manifests in other states, expect the conversations around exempt employees to multiply, guaranteeing this term a spot on our 2020 list.
As Shawn Carter, aka 'Jay-Z', said, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a Business, Man." 2019 was a good year in the business of being Jay-Z. He made the billionaires list after building a small personal fortune as a clothing and hip-hop entrepreneur, and parlayed that success into his record label Roc-a-Fella Records, now called Roc Nation. Roc Nation expanded into a sports agency which represents some of the top tier professional athletes, coaches and sports personalities in the world. In 2019, Jay-Z teamed up with the NFL to help produce its Super Bowl halftime show and other events. He also ramped up investments through his venture capital fund, Marcy Venture Partners, which is currently invested in six companies, including Rihanna's Savage X Fenty clothing line.
8. Karl Marx
The Godfather of Socialism is having a moment. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC, Karl Marx is back in style. Socialism has become a hotly debated topic in politics, and not just in the U.S. Polarizing elections are happening all over the world as economies throughout Latin America and Europe consider whether the 'capitalism experiment' has really worked or not. On these shores, Democratic candidates for president in 2020 are espousing themes like Universal Basic Income, Medicare for All and the elimination of student loans. Conservative opponents may brand them as socialists, though Karl Marx likely did not have those topics in mind when he wrote Das Kapital in 1867, his seminal treatise on the underpinnings of the capitalist system and the risks it brings with it.
9. Inverted Yield Curve
The infamous harbinger of recessions happened a few times in 2019 as the yields of the 10-year and the three-month U.S. Treasury bills inverted. That means investors' demand for short term bonds spiked along with their economic worries. There was plenty to be worried about in the global economy in 2019 with the U.S. and China locked in a trade war and once formidable economies like Germany faltering. It's usually the inversion of the 10-year and the two-year U.S. Treasuries that puts a chill into economy watchers, and while that didn't quite happen in 2019, it came frighteningly close a few times, causing our readers to look this term up millions of times.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria broke out of the background as a socially conscious way of investing. ESG investors embraced companies, mutual funds and ETFs that subscribe to the practice either avoiding companies that don't follow ESG principles, or investing specifically in companies that do.
Principles aside, ESG proved in 2019 that it could deliver results as well as a clear conscience. Global exchange-traded funds focused on environmental, social and governance issues had more than $13.5 billion in total assets under management at latest count, tripling in in the past year. Performance in this sector helped break the notion that ESG investing had underwhelming returns. The iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF (SUSA), one of the largest exchange traded products that offer investors exposure to ESG, has returned nearly 25% year-to-date, in line with the broader market.
2019's top-read terms reflect the tension in global and domestic economies as investors grapple with the sustainability of a bull market for stocks. Our preconceived notions of everything from retirement to homeownership, and the role of capitalism were called into question as income inequality continued to spread around the world. It's been quite a year so far, and 2020 looks like it will be just as dynamic.