The Fool needs your help. We need to know if you directly own individual stocks.
It's a seemingly obvious question for a website dedicated to the individual investor, but you might be surprised. Plenty of research suggests that a staggeringly large percentage of eligible investors (Fools, even) never take the plunge and buy shares of individual companies.
Why not go straight to the horse's mouth for the answer?
I'm a member of the Fool's Customer Experience team and it's my job to understand our customers as well as possible. In this case, I'm attempting to confirm that even on Fool.com, The Motley Fool's flagship website that is effectively dedicated to serving the interests of the individual shareholder, there is a significant population of Fools who do not own stocks directly. We broadly assume that the vast majority of visitors to this site do. But you know what they say about assumptions …
The end of ownership
Plenty of data indicates that the widespread ownership of stocks by individuals is a concept as quaint as Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Nikita Khrushchev. In fact, today, the typical American no longer directly owns stocks in his or her nation’s companies -- not even one share -- whereas 60 years ago it was the overwhelming norm. Despite that plenty of substantial barriers to stock ownership no longer exist, millions of financially sound, financially literate individuals have decided to avoid it -- and I suspect many millions of Fools are with them.
The average person could get up and running with a brokerage account in a matter of days -- perhaps even sooner. Why then don't more people own stocks? Perhaps it's because the financial markets have grown so unnervingly complex. Perhaps it's because there are many more alternatives than there were decades ago -- many of them designed to eliminate the certain inconveniences associated with owning individual stocks. Perhaps people have that much more strain on their time and can't afford to put in the effort. There are all sorts of plausible reasons.
Whatever the reason, the reality is that in 1950, individual households controlled the value of more than 90% of all public companies in the United States. Think about that for a minute: 90% of the value of our nation's businesses was in the hands of individuals. In 1970, that number fell to 68%; in 1990, 51%; and in 2000, 39%. Today, we're south of 37%.
For better or worse (we'd definitely say for worse), individuals today largely avoid the privilege of identifying, researching, purchasing, and owning America's businesses. Most prefer to leave the work to an intermediary -- a mutual fund, a pension fund, etc. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the collapse of the individual shareholder population has directly coincided with the epic rise of the financial services industry and all the garbage that has come with it.
This is a very bad thing.
This isn't some kind of binary decision, either. Individuals aren't forced to choose between institutional management and individual stocks exclusively. But the majority do -- and it's pretty bizarre. In 1958, 78% of mutual fund owners also owned stock in companies directly. Today, that number is a mere 43%. Even in IRA accounts (accounts designed to be controlled by the individual), only 37% of account holders choose to buy individual stocks.
Considering what has happened in the economy of late, the re-emergence of an involved, engaged group of individual shareholders is a good thing for a variety of reasons. Americans should take back what is rightfully theirs -- the direct ownership of America's businesses. Why deal with such a powerful middleman all the time? I suspect many of you feel the same way, but many still may not be acting like it. We need to know.
Am I wrong?
Perhaps the vast majority of Fools do own stocks. Perhaps we're just preaching to the choir. But perhaps we're not. Why don't you tell us?
Help us know more about you.