Shares game anyone can play

As stocks soar, neighbourhood investment clubs are springing up all over the US. But is the gravy train heading for a crash?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF JOE KENNEDY, patriarch of the Massachusetts clan, were alive today, would he be in the stock market? Damn right, you might answer. Why would that rogue miss out on a bull run that has essentially been in motion for the past 16 years? Doesn't just about every American own stocks in one form or another these days, either with their own portfolio, a retirement plan, or through a mutual fund?

Not quite everyone, but 44 per cent of US households do. That is an astonishing number. At the last count, 40 million US households had money in the market, compared with 26 million in 1991. Stock investments now account for more wealth among US families than the houses they live in. As the profits continue to cascade - the market has surged 16 per cent since the beginning of this year and has doubled since mid-1995 - the stampede to Wall Street has become the Gold Rush of the Nineties.

That means we are not talking any more about just the BMW-and-braces crowd. To borrow the cliche, Main Street truly is converging with Wall Street. Research by the investment bank Sanford Bernstein shows that while it used to be that the very wealthy owned 90-95 per cent of US stocks, today they account for 65-75 per cent. The rest can be traced to wage earners, mortgage holders, and blue-collar workers.

Which brings us back to Joe Kennedy. Remember that story about the day in 1929 when he was astonished to find himself on the receiving end of stock tips from his shoeshine boy? That was the alarm bell that told him that the speculative bubble that had built up through the Twenties was surely about to burst. He sold off all of his stocks and, of course, only weeks later came the Wall Street Crash.

Yolanda Salmon does not shine shoes, but neither is she your typical Manhattan high-roller. Ms Salmon works as a sorter with the US Post Office and lives in the Bronx. But the investment bug has reached her too. Share tips from her? Yes, Mr Kennedy, I fear so.

Indeed, Ms Salmon is positively brimming with wisdom about the stock market because she has joined another trend that has grown out of the US's new stocks-and-shares psyche. With a group of woman friends from her neighbourhood she has set up an investment club. They have given it a name, Movers and Shakers, and with it they intend to do one thing: "Make us some money," she yelps.

I met Yolanda and her friends Clarinda Wilkins and Ruthann Coe-Reid at a Tuesday night meeting of the New York chapter of the National Association of Investors Corporation (NAIC). It is a twice-monthly event designed to help anyone interested in setting up an investors club as a means to dip their toe in the market.

Founded in the Fifties, the NAIC suddenly finds itself swamped by new members. In 1990 it had about 7,000 clubs on its rolls; today there are 37,000. As a glance at the 200-odd at the meeting revealed, these are not clubs for the already rich. Nor, often, even for men. Nearly two-thirds of NAIC's membership is female; indeed, nearly half of the clubs are for women only.

The basic notion is this: every club will meet regularly, say twice a month, and vote on strategy for a common portfolio. Every member, meanwhile, must feed in some money each month, $25 in the case of the Movers and Shakers. The clubs are popular because they offer novice investors the chance to share the experience of investing - and the risk - with friends. And because they make their own decisions, the clubs mean not having to go to some professional broker hungry for commissions.

WHY SUCH a predominance in the clubs of women over men? Robbie Epstein, a teacher from Queens, said that the club she was just starting, called Women's Sen$e, was in part about taking back control of her life from men. She said: "I just felt I had had enough of the condescension. I couldn't see any reason why women shouldn't be just as capable of investing in the market as men."

Arlene Jorstad, who is head of the Chicago NAIC Council, hesitated before answering. "This is really terrible," she finally offers, "but I think sometimes men might get an intimation that women might do as well or better than they do." If men were part of the club, she added, they tended to clam up if they didn't immediately strike riches.

It is true that, left alone, women are seemingly outperforming their male peers. Last year, the average compounded earnings rates for women- only investment clubs was 17.9 per cent, compared with 15.6 per cent for men.

The NAIC makes its own guesses as to why that should be. Men, it suggests, are simply less patient at staying with a stock over the longer haul, through the downs as well as the ups. And women, it adds, are more often customers of the companies that the clubs might be considering for their portfolios and therefore may have a better feel for them.

Another way to grasp the democratisation of Wall Street is to see how information sources about it have exploded. No longer is intelligence about price:earnings ratios or company profit outlooks available only to Street insiders. Today, novice investors can choose between CNBC and its rival CNNfn, on cable, for the latest biz-buzz 24 hours a day. In my local YMCA gym, it is not the sports channels that blare each lunchtime from the TV monitors in the changing-room but CNBC displaying every twitch of the Dow Jones industrial average. One of the latest additions to the cacophony of light on New York's Times Square is a storeys-high stock- price ticker wrapped around the headquarters of Morgan Stanley.

There has been a simultaneous boom in print publications specialising in financial news. Randall Jones, the founder of one of them, Worth, recently noted that one niche remains unexploited: a financial title for - who else? - women. "I was having lunch with some women the other day, and we were talking about a personal-finance magazine just for women," he said. "They said: 'In our twenties all we talked about was sex and relationships. Now all we talk about is money'."

He added: "I can't believe no one has done it yet".

Then there is the Internet. America Online recently reported that its subscribers chose the financial-services icon on its opening menu more often than any other, including news and lifestyles. Members request 70 million stock quotes from the service every day. The Internet, meanwhile, has also given investors a new, cheaper place through which actually to trade. Today there are 60 so-called US-based e-traders on the Internet, offering to execute trades for commissions much lower than those of traditional, full-service brokerages. That is compared with 30 just 12 months ago.

ALL OF this combines to produce a relentless blare about Wall Street that happens, these days, also to be almost exlusively upbeat. "Dow Jones hits new high" the headlines shout. The Dow Jones has soared past 9,000, once thought an unthinkable level, and now even 10,000 seems conceivable. Adding to the atmosphere of near-hysteria are the almost daily super- merger announcements. Daimler-Chrysler, Travelers-Citicorp and so on. They can be financed precisely because companies have been priced so high by the galloping markets. But the fact of them happening also serves to contribute further to the mania.

"I realised the other day that I could possibly be making more money from the stock market than I can at my job," said Tricia Lella, 27, a fashion-magazine producer in New York. Describing herself as being "one step above clueless" about Wall Street, she said she came suddenly to realise that stocks given to her years ago by her parents were screaming for her attention. "It told me I'd better get off my ass and do something about it and follow the market. It's certainly easier to do that than go to work every day."

But are expectations too high? The Sanford Bernstein research finds that no fewer than 84 per cent of those in the market believe that the average 14 per cent annual return achieved by the market over the past decade will be either equalled or bettered in the years ahead. That seems wildly optimistic.

Yolanda of the Movers and Shakers brooks little nay-saying, however. Not only is she looking forward to harvesting new riches, she believes she too might one day be earning enough from Wall Street to give up working on Main Street. "I do believe that's possible," she said.

Who knows how Joe Kennedy would take the enthusiasm of Yolanda? But here, finally, is someone who surely would give him pause: Afif Zaitoon. Afif, a neighbour of mine, is only seven years old. He knows nothing about stocks, but he will soon. That is because parents across the US - Afif's mother included - have decided that there is someone else in the family who might do better than men in investment clubs: the kids. Once a month, starting in June, Afif will join other children of his mother's friends to talk about which companies he thinks look good and begin to empty his piggy-bank for them.

Please, no stock tips this summer, Afif. Or, like Joe Kennedy, I may have to call my broker.