Ten years ago, the Internet was a spooky place. We know. The Motley Fool was there. Many viewed the idea of investors sharing thoughts in cyberspace as unreliable. Financial newspapers and magazines claimed that the growing number of financial communities online were more focused on hype than on education. And there were only a few indications that the Internet would truly revolutionize investing.
Back then, very few companies held open conference calls. On our AM radio show, David Gardner and I (Tom here) called out the good people at Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) because its CFO said he didn't think individual investors could understand Starbucks' business. We said, "Patooey!" There were a lot of complicated businesses 10 years ago (and there still are today), but a national chain of coffee shops didn't (and doesn't) happen to be one of them. Regardless of how complicated a business is, that's no excuse for keeping material information from any investor. After we orchestrated a call-in campaign from our radio show, Starbucks did the right thing and began communicating simultaneously to all shareholders.
But times were changing back in 1996. David and I (Tom again) found ourselves highlighted on the cover of Fortune for our work on America Online. And folks were beginning to discover the virtually limitless potential of the Internet.
Today, we live in a much more investor-friendly environment. The Internet (for all of the other benefits it has brought to everyday life) is now the fundamental tool for investors. And Wall Street has changed because of it. Companies are forced by Regulation Fair Disclosure, or Reg FD -- a movement led by former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt and The Motley Fool -- to disclose material simultaneously to all investors. More importantly, an increasing number of investors are finding their way online to not only access filings, press releases, and commentary, but also to share reliable and educational ideas and analysis.
Furthermore, with the decline of traditional "passive" pension plans and the rise of self-directed vehicles such as 401(k)s and IRAs, more Americans than ever before are active investors. According to the Investment Company Institute, 57 million households own equities in some form -- up some 42% from just 10 years ago. Many also use online discount brokers to buy and sell shares, and more than 20 million people read The Motley Fool each month.
Low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have also experienced a boom in popularity. In response, Vanguard has lowered the expense ratios of its Vanguard 500 (FUND: VFINX ) and Vanguard Total Stock Market (FUND: VTSMX ) index huggers. Other mutual fund companies are following suit, and more folks are able to affordably invest in the stock market on their own.
In just 10 years, the information available to the individual investor has massively increased, and the cost of investing has decreased substantially. Never before has Joe Oddlot (guys like you and us) been in a better position to beat the market for the next 25 years. But that's not to say there still isn't room for improvement. While Wall Street is changed, there is still little transparency when it comes to the financial pros.
For example, does anyone truly know the relationships that exist in the big companies -- Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER ) , Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MWD ) , et. al. -- between the investment bankers and the sell-side analysts? Moreover, although financial releases of any of the more than 8,000 publicly traded companies are now available within seconds, that does not mean the releases are any easier to understand. Through wordsmithing and creative accounting, investor-relations types (who are increasingly important to public companies as they cope with the information revolution) are becoming as smooth as politicians. While there are countless examples out there, one of the most amusing came from Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK ) . After realizing that because IT problems had prevented the company from uploading new inventory to its website, the company titled its press release disclosing this problem "Overstock.com Overstocked with Bargains" and lauded the event as the largest "single upload . in corporate history."
Remember: Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Looking in the crystal ball
Our hope is that, someday soon, those involved in investing will all join together to help identify superior businesses and investment opportunities and weed out the traps. Because in 2016, the Internet will be accessible everywhere and open video conference calls will certainly be beamed around the world in real time. We -- like many others of you -- have often wished to see the faces of our CEOs as they handle the questions asked of them. Groups of investors will scrutinize every public company and publish their research in full view at Fool.com. Important financial decisions will no longer have to be made in isolation. Tax professionals will field complex questions online for little cost. All real estate agents, brokers, and insurance salespeople will negotiate for your business in full view of other customers and compete with each other to give you the best deal, as some do today at places such as Bankrate and Lending Tree. This is the revolution of the customer, and one that has been a long time coming.
Foolish final thoughts
The trend is certainly moving in the direction of the full democratization of investing and greater individual control of household finances. We are getting closer to that ideal. Yet the more things change, the more they will stay the same. For individual investors to beat the market year after year after year, they will need to adhere to the timeless principle of buying superior companies and great prices and holding for the long term. This is the philosophy that guides us in our Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter, helping David and me beat the market by more than 40 percentage points since 2003. To read our research and find out how powerful community resources like discussion boards really are, click here to take a 30-day free trial. There is no obligation to subscribe.
Happy New Year! The Motley Fool takes a look in its crystal ball to bring you the future today.Click hereto read more about New Year's 2016!
Overstock.com is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation.
Fool co-founder Tom Gardner is the lead analyst ofMotley Fool Hidden Gems. Tim Hanson sits near Tom Gardner and listens to him opine. Neither owns shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.