Investment Basics - Course 202 - Using Financial Services Wisely

By: Steve Bauer | Wed, Nov 3, 2010
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This is the tenth Course in a series of 38 called "Investment Basics" - created by Professor Steven Bauer, a retired university professor and still active asset manager and consultant / mentor.


 

Course 202 - Using Financial Services Wisely

Introduction

Once you consider taxes and decide what type of investment account you'd like to open, the next nuts-and-bolts decision involves actually choosing a broker and / or a brokerage firm.

When thinking about a stockbroker, a picture of Charlie Sheen / Michael Douglas from the movies "Wall Street" often comes to mind. Thoughts of cold calls interrupting your dinner and pushy salesmen trying to sell the latest "hot stock" can scare investors away from buying stocks. In reality, however, it isn't so bad, and there are many options to choose from.

In this Course, I'll aim to provide the information you need to pick a broker and / or brokerage firm that will help you reach your financial goals.

Think of a brokerage firm as the middleman between you and the person you are buying your stock from or selling your stock to. When you place an order to either buy or sell a stock, your brokerage firm will find a party that is willing to take the other side of your transaction. Of course, the brokerage firm will charge a fee (commission) for this service. There are hundreds of brokerage firms, and they provide varying levels of service. For the purpose of this Course, however, we'll focus on three types of service providers: full-service brokerage firms, fee-based financial planners and financial analysts / asset managers, and discount brokerage firms.

Prof's. Guidance: After spending so much time in this and other courses of study, you may wish to skip over the broker (salesman) and just open an account with a brokerage firm where you can Email your Buy and Sell orders without the influence of a broker and the higher commissions. Think about it!

Full-Service Brokerage Firm

Full-service brokerage firms and their brokers provide handholding through the investment process that often gives investors reassurance that they are not going it alone. They provide personalized service, as well as advice on what to buy and sell. This is the greatest benefit to full-service brokerage firm and their brokers, but the benefits can (sometimes) be outweighed by the costs -- literally. This handholding does not come cheap, and the commissions charged by a full-service provider can quickly eat away at any investment gains your portfolio makes.

Another concern with full-service brokerage firm and their broker is the inherent conflict of interest that drives many of the recommendations they give clients. Many brokerage firms and their brokers are compensated by trading activity, not performance. For example, most full-service brokers and their brokers are paid based on a commission they receive for executing sales and purchases. So the more you trade, the more your broker will make. One of the reasons frequent trading is generally a bad idea is that it leads to higher commissions that will eat into your returns. It can also cause you to pay higher taxes on realized short-term capital gains.

So while it is against your best interest to trade often, a full-service broker and their brokers has an incentive to encourage frequent trading, just to rake in the fees. At the end of the day, even the well-intentioned commission-based brokers face a conflict with your interests. If you decide to use a full-service broker and their brokers, make sure to seek out those upstanding professionals who are willing to look beyond this conflict and put your interests ahead of their own.

Fee-Based Planners & Financial Analysts / Asset Managers

If you still find the need for personalized, professional investment advice but want to avoid the conflicts of interest at full-service brokers and their brokers, fee-based planners and financial analysts/asset managers can be a worthy consideration. Fee-based planners and financial analysts/asset managers usually charge their clients based on a variety of factors, and the way they get paid does not have a large inherent conflict of interest.

In general, planners and advisors get paid in one of three ways. First, they may charge you a percentage of your assets on an ongoing basis (say, 1% - 2% a year, not including brokerage costs or any expenses associated with mutual funds). Other planners charge a dollar rate on a per-job or hourly basis. Finally, others earn commissions on any products they sell you. Some planners may use a combination of these fee structures -- for example, a planner might charge you an hourly rate to set up your plan and also put you in funds on which he or she earns a commission. The upshot is that most planners and advisors do not have the incentive to encourage frequent trading, and run up your annual expenses.

Discount Brokers

To avoid the pitfalls of full-service brokers and their brokers and the costs of fee-based planners, using a discount broker is yet another option. Discount brokers differ from their full-service counterparts in that they offer bare-bones brokerage services, and typically do not offer advice. Investors with discount brokers don't have to worry about aggressive sales tactics or the conflicts of interest I discussed above. Instead, discount brokers such as Charles Schwab, E*Trade, and Fidelity allow investors to make their own decisions regarding what to invest in.

Most importantly, the commissions that investors pay to discount brokers are significantly cheaper than the commissions charged by full-service brokers. Whereas a full-service brokerage firm may charge a commission in the hundreds of dollars per trade, a discount broker's commissions are often a fraction of this. And with the advent of the Internet, Web-based discount brokers make it easier than ever for individuals to maintain their own stock portfolios. Although discount brokers make investing easier, picking just a good firm is relatively easy. This is of course true if you are willing to compete with the professional and do your own research.

Costs & Quality of the Firm

When looking for a discount broker, cost and the quality of the firm should be a major focal point. I've already established that discount brokers are significantly less expensive than full-service brokers, but there is a wide range of price options within the discount broker arena as well. For example, commissions can range anywhere from $30 to less than $10, depending on the brokerage firm. Obviously, the less you have to pay in commissions, the better. But there are also many other factors you should consider. Many brokers charge lower per-trade commissions for "active traders." For example, a brokerage house can require that investors make more than 20 or 30 trades a quarter or month before they qualify for the lower commissions. I've said it before and I'll say it again: All else equal, frequent trading will eat away at your returns over the long run.

Peripheral Services

Brokers sometimes charge higher commissions because they offer investors a variety of other useful services. For example, many brokerages offer third-party research for stocks.

Although I think most serious and seasoned investors are capable of making their own investment decisions, even the most experienced investors will eventually have a question or two about their accounts. This is why it's important to look for a brokerage firm that provides good customer service. Some companies have satellite offices in neighborhood strip malls, while others may provide 24-hour phone support. It's certainly worthwhile to look into a broker's customer service before making a decision.

A more recent trend is for brokerage firms to also provide other financial services, such as retail banking (checking and savings accounts) and loans. These services may be attractive for those looking for a "one-stop shop" for all their financial needs. The range of these services can vary, but they are also worth looking into.

After you've opened an account with your broker of choice, you have a variety of investing options and strategies at your fingertips.

Market and Limit Orders

Investors can trade stocks through a broker using several methods, some of which offer them more control or the opportunity to juice their returns -- with added risk, of course.

Placing an order to buy or sell shares of a company is relatively straightforward. There are various methods you can use, however, if you want to execute a trade at a specific price.

A market order is the most straightforward method of placing a trade. A market order tells the broker to buy or sell at the best price he or she can get in the market, and the trades are usually executed immediately.

A limit order means you can set the maximum price you are willing to pay for a stock, or a minimum price you'd be willing to sell a stock for. If the stock is trading anywhere below your maximum purchase price, or above the minimum selling price, the trade will be executed. However, because there are limitations when a limit order is placed, the trade might not be executed immediately. Also, some brokers charge extra when a limit order is requested.

Buying on Margin

Buying on margin is a risky way to pump up the potential return on your investment. Margin trades involve borrowing money from your broker to purchase an investment. Let's run through an example of how buying on margin can be profitable and also how it can be a risky game:

Let's say you want to buy 100 shares of fictional company Illini Basketballs Inc. Each share costs $10, so your total cost would be $1,000 (we'll ignore commissions for now). If those shares go up to $12 after you buy, your return would be 20%, or $200 (100 shares x $2 per share profit).

Now let's say you bought those 100 shares on margin. Instead of using $1,000 of your own money, you borrow $500 and use only $500 of your own money. Now if the stock goes up to $12, your return jumps to 40% ($200 profit/$500 initial investment).

Of course nothing is free, so you'd have to pay interest on the $500 you borrowed. Nevertheless, it's easy to see how buying shares of a company on margin can really juice your returns. But below is an example of how buying on margin can turn ugly. We'll use the same example as above, but with a twist:

You've borrowed $500 and used $500 of your own money to buy 100 shares of Illini Basketballs Inc. at $10. If Illini's shares drop to $8, you've suddenly lost 40% of your investment, and you still owe your broker the $500 it lent you.

If stock bought on margin keeps going down, you might even eventually get a dreaded "margin call." This means your broker is getting nervous that you might not have enough money to pay back the loan. If you get a margin call, you'd have to contribute more cash to your account, or sell some of your stocks to reduce your loan. Typically, these sales happen at precisely the wrong time -- when stocks are down and at bargain-basement prices. Brokerage firms usually have set requirements that dictate how much of your own cash you need to have in your portfolio when trading on margin. Buying on margin is not for beginners, so tread carefully.

Shorting

It may sound funny, but investors can actually profit when a stock goes down in price. Shorting stocks involves selling borrowed shares with the intent of repurchasing them at a lower price. Instead of trying to buy low and sell high, you are simply reversing the order. Once again, let's go through an example:

You've been tracking fictional company Badgers Bricks Corp. and think its newest products are going to flop. The company is already on the ropes financially, and you think that this may be the last straw. You decide to short 100 shares of the company. After an order to short Badgers Bricks Corp.'s stock is placed, your broker will find 100 shares that it can lend to you. You immediately sell those shares on the marketplace for $10 and receive proceeds of $1,000. If the stock drops to $8, you can buy the shares for $800 and return them to your broker. Your profit is $200 ($1,000 minus $800).

This sounds easy enough, but no investment is foolproof. If you make the wrong choice of company when shorting a stock, your downside is potentially unlimited. In a best-case scenario, the stock you short will go down to $0 and your profit equals all the cash you received from selling the borrowed shares.

On the downside, the stock you short could increase in price, and there is no limit on how high it may go. Remember, those shares are borrowed and eventually will have to be returned. If the price keeps going up, you'll be stuck paying a lot more to buy the stock back, perhaps much more than you could have made if the stock went to zero. The important thing to remember is that the potential downside in shorting stocks is unlimited. As with buying on margin, be careful.


The Bottom Line

The mechanics of trading are really not very difficult to grasp. But to be a successful investor, it is certainly worthwhile to use financial services wisely by paying attention to fees and commissions, which will inevitably eat into your returns. Minimizing your fees, like minimizing your taxes, is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.

Quiz 202
There is only one correct answer to each question.

  1. Say you bought 100 shares of fictional company Hawkeye's Footballs, Inc. on margin for $100 per share. You borrow 50% of the funds used for the purchase. If the stock price increased to $110, what would your return on investment be? (Ignore commissions and interest costs.)
    1. 10%.
    2. 40%.
    3. 20%.
  1. What is a broker?
    1. The person who does your taxes.
    2. A middleman between you and the person you are buying your stock from or selling your stock to.
    3. A journalist who writes about financial topics.
  1. You short 100 shares of fictional company Hoosier Soybeans Corp. at $20. The shares subsequently drop to $15, and you close out the short position. What would your cash profit be?
    1. Minus $500.
    2. $250.
    3. $500.
  1. If you place a market order to buy 100 shares of fictional company Wolverines Sailboats Corp., at what price and when would the trade be executed?
    1. The trade would be executed immediately at the best available price.
    2. The trade would be executed when the shares hit your specified buy price.
    3. The trade would not be executed until the next day at the best price available.
  1. Full-service brokers typically:
    1. Get paid based on your investment performance and not your trading activity.
    2. Provide a lot of personal attention and advice.
    3. Charge low commissions.

Thanks for attending class this week - and - don't put off doing some extra homework (using Google - for information and answers to your questions) and perhaps sharing with the Prof. your questions and concerns.

 


Investment Basics (a 38 Week - Comprehensive Course)
By: Professor Steven Bauer

Text: Google has the answers to most all of your questions, after exploring Google if you still have thoughts or questions my Email is open 24/7.

Each week you will receive your Course Materials. There will be two kinds of highlights: a) Prof's Guidance, and b) Italic within the text material. You should consider printing the Course Materials and making notes of those areas of questions and perhaps the highlights and go to Google to see what is available to supplement those highlights. I'm here to help.

Freshman Year

Course 101 - Stock Versus Other Investments
Course 102 - The Magic of Compounding
Course 103 - Investing for the Long Run
Course 104 - What Matters & What Doesn't
Course 105 - The Purpose of a Company
Course 106 - Gathering Information
Course 107 - Introduction to Financial Statements
Course 108 - Learn the Lingo & Some Basic Ratios

Sophomore Year

Course 201 - Stocks & Taxes
Course 202 - Using Financial Services Wisely
Course 203 - Understanding the News xxx
Course 204 - Start Thinking Like an Analyst
Course 205 - Economic Moats
Course 206 - More on Competitive Positioning
Course 207 - Weighting Management Quality

Junor Year

Course 301 - The Income Statement
Course 302 - The Balance Sheet
Course 303 - The Statement of Cash Flows
Course 304 - Interpreting the Numbers
Course 305 - Quantifying Competitive Advantages

Senor Year

Course 401 - Understanding Value
Course 402 - Using Ratios and Multiples
Course 403 - Introduction to Discounted Cash Flow
Course 404 - Putting OCF into Action
Course 405 - The Fat-Pitch Strategy
Course 406 - Using Morningstar as a Reference
Course 407 - Psychology and Investing
Course 408 - The Case for Dividends
Course 409 - The Dividend Drill

Graduate School

Course 501 - Constructing a Portfolio
Course 502 - Introduction to Options
Course 503 - Unconventional Equities
Course 504 - Wise Analysts: Benjamin Graham
Course 505 - Wise Analysts: Philip Fisher
Course 506 - Wise Analysts: Warren Buffett
Course 507 - Wise Analysts: Peter Lynch
Course 508 - Wise Analysts: Others
Course 509 - 20 Stock & Investing Tips

This Completes the List of Courses.

Wishing you a wonderful learning experience and the continued desire to grow your knowledge. Education is an essential part of living wisely and the experiences of life, I hope you make it fun.

Learning how to consistently profit in the Stock Market, in good times and in not so good times requires time and unfortunately mistakes which are called losses. Why not be profitable while you are learning? Let me know if I can help.

 


 

Author: Steve Bauer

Steven H. Bauer, Ph.D.

Steve Bauer

Steve has several degrees, i.e. post graduate degrees and doctorate and a great deal of (too much) continued education. For seven years, he did a stent as a University Professor of Finance and Economics.

He owned a privately held asset management firm and managed individual investor and corporate accounts as a Registered Investment Advisor - for over 40 years.

Professionally he is a financial analyst and private asset manager / consultant / mentor.

Steve can be reach at senorstevedrmx@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2010-2011 Steven H. Bauer, Ph.D.

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