Is the Stock Market Rigged?

The following commentary was originally posted on FoolFunds.com, the website of Motley Fool Asset Management, LLC, on Nov. 6. With permission, we're reproducing it here in an edited form.

"Win or lose, we go shopping after the election." -- Imelda Marcos

Thank heavens our long early evening nightmare here in Northern Virginia is over. No more Robocalls interrupting dinner, random knocks on the door waking sleeping babies, or foreboding television ads making it hard to enjoy watching football. Yes, election season has ended, and I suspect anyone who lives in a "swing state" shares my delight.

Of course, while we can probably all agree to be glad that campaigns are through for a while, it's probably a more divided group when it comes to whether you are happy with the results of the election. And although there may be one or two people who follow through on that quadrennial promise to move to Canada, the fact is that win or lose, most of us keep on keeping on.

As Imelda Marcos knew, that's the right tack -- particularly when it comes to investing the way we go about investing. See, we're not economic forecasters, nor do we let our opinions about what we think policymakers should be doing influence the companies we buy and sell. Instead, we examine the hand the world is being dealt and seek out the companies best able to play that hand profitably for shareholders. More times than not, those companies are the same whether GDP growth is going up or down, or regulations grow more permissive or restrictive. That's because a well-run company is by definition adaptable to the circumstances in which it finds itself, with a management team that will make smart capital allocation decisions in light of those same circumstances. This is one of the reasons our turnover ratio so low (it takes a lot for a company that makes it into the portfolios to get booted) and why you won't see us trading health care companies or alternative energy firms in reaction to election results (if a company is only successful because of a short-term policy change, that's not the kind of company we want to own).

That said, there's at least one problem in America today that we hope someone will start addressing: the plummeting opinion that Americans have of the stock market.

Just another game rigged against you
According to data collected by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, just 15% of Americans trust the stock market, while a study by MFS Investment Management revealed that 40% of 18- to 30-year-olds believe they will never feel comfortable enough with stocks to invest in them. Ask Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) if the stock market is rigged, and you'll find far more arguments for why individuals should not invest than for why they should. And that sentiment was an issue in this year's election. A voter featured in an ad here in Virginia, for example, declared "If George Allen wants to risk his own money on Wall Street, that's fine. But I don't want him risking mine."

Now, I'm not calling for the privatization of Social Security or even looking to defend Wall Street's reputation -- which is rightfully in tatters after more than a decade of scandals, bubbles, and dishonesty. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that the concept of investing as we practice it here at Motley Fool Funds is a very different idea from that of "Wall Street" or even "the stock market." While we deal with people on Wall Street who help us trade stocks on markets around the world, these relationships act as means to an end rather than an end in itself.

The end of investing
Think about it: Wall Street could cease to exist and the stock market could shut down tomorrow, and there would be little effect on the intrinsic value of the holdings in our portfolios. That's because investors' money is not beholden to either of these institutions, but has purchased ownership stakes in great non-Wall Street-based companies such as Costco, Berkshire Hathaway, and TOD's s.p.a. -- companies that would go on creating value for us and for you even if this world were deprived of leveraged buyouts, derivative securities, and algorithmic trading. In other words, the question when it comes to investing in those stocks is not: "Do you trust Wall Street?" or "Do you trust the stock market?," but "Do you trust Jim Sinegal to keep doing right by his employers, customers, and suppliers?," "Do you trust Warren Buffett to keep allocating capital efficiently and effectively?," and "Do you trust Diego Della Valle to keep making the absolute highest quality leather goods?"

Far more than 15% of Americans would likely answer "yes" to these questions, which makes it a tragedy that so many Americans are avoiding stocks today. Yes, they've reduced their exposure to "Wall Street," but in so doing, they have deprived themselves of any relationship to the wealth being created daily by the world's smartest and most dedicated entrepreneurs. That's a decision that will cost many dearly as they seek to achieve their long-term financial goals.

If you are reading this, odds are you are not among this group. But you probably have friends and family in this group, and as the holiday season approaches, make a point of reaching out to them this year and communicating that investing in the world's great businesses is not equivalent to putting your money on black in a world that always comes up red. Together, we might be able to save investing's reputation.

Editor's note: Tim Hanson is not able to engage in discussion on the boards or in the comments section below. Tim owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 2:37 PM, seattle1115 wrote:

    I would like someone to explain to me how the market could be "rigged." The market consists of transactions, and in most cases each transaction will result in a winner and a loser. Now, it's certainly true that behaviors such as insider trading can artificially increase one's likelihood of being a winner, but only if the parties engaging in such behavior have an adequate supply of rubes to fleece. It seems to me that I have as good a chance as anyone of coming out on top in a given transaction, provided that I'm not a rube. If I go blindly following Jim Cramer or biting on email pitches for penny stocks, I'm gonna get robbed. But following a few simple rules (diversify, do your own due diligence, monitor your investments, and avoid anything that looks too good to be true), I stand a pretty good chance of avoiding the worst of the problems. I feel as though I can be pretty confident that when I come out of a transaction a loser, it's because of my own mistakes or bad luck, and not some grand conspiracy.

  • Report this Comment On November 29, 2012, at 4:03 PM, whyaduck1128 wrote:

    In many respects, Wall Street doesn't have to rig the game. The more people speculate rather than invest, the more transactions they ring up, the more WS smiles. They can make lots of money on sheer volume alone.

    It's not like a casino, where the percentages of each game favor the house but a hot streak can cause the house to lose short-term. It's more of a floating crap game, where the house takes its money off the top of each pot.

  • Report this Comment On December 02, 2012, at 3:37 PM, stockdissector wrote:

    Talking to relatives in my family about the stock market can turn ugly.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2012, at 3:05 AM, cesium62 wrote:

    The stock market can be rigged in a variety of ways:

    1) Stock brokers can offer advice about what to buy, knowingly lying to push bad stock they will make money on.

    2) CEOs who know the company is going down can lie as they sell off their shares before announcing the problems. Think Enron.

    3) Fund managers can overcharge, requiring a percentage of investments instead of a percentage of after-tax profits.

    4) Pension funds and large stock holders can manipulate the market to their advantage in ways that the small stockholder cannot compete against.

    Increased deregulation over the last 30 years has made it easier for the big players and inside players to lie and manipulate in a variety of ways. You can fool yourself into thinking that you stand a chance, but you don't. You simply cannot acquire enough information to adequately protect yourself against the shenanigans that will be played against you.

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