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What I Learned on Wall Street

A regular feature of theMotley Fool Rule Your Retirementnewsletter service is our success stories -- profiles of people who have become financially independent. One of the most remarkable stories is about Billy and Akaisha Kaderli, who, at age 38, left their fast-track lives, moved to Nevis, West Indies, in the Caribbean, and started traveling the world. How much does such an exotic early retirement cost? Just $24,000 a year. We caught up with the Kaderlis, currently in Thailand, and in this article, Billy talks about the lessons he learned when he was a vice president of investments for an international brokerage firm.

Everyone thinks that brokers know how to invest. It's why we pay them, right? Investment houses teach their brokers the rules of investing and the differences among stocks, bonds, annuities, and limited partnerships. We learned the rules of option trading, were told what an IPO is, and learned about the benefits of diversification. But this does not mean we were taught the skill or art of investing.

Remember, Wall Street firms are there to make money. Serious money. They trade their accounts just like you and I. Sometimes their trading desks do well, and other times not so well. But brokerage firms always make money on the retail side from commissions, and the firm's idea of a good broker is one who generates income for the company. We were trained how to sell, and so long as you stay within the rules, a broker's behavior may or may not have anything to do with the client's best interest.

Lesson No. 1: Think twice before trading.
As a branch manager, my primary job was supervising my brokers. I can remember many times where account executives made more money than their clients in a year. It was up to me to be sure they were working within the proper regulations, both from our company and from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Therefore, I needed to monitor my brokers' trades, watching for excessive action in individual accounts.

At the end of the year, I would look at the commissions generated from certain accounts versus how much money that account increased during the year. Too many times I saw the broker making more than the clients did. The trades were fine -- they weren't examples of churning, and they were perfectly legal. Most of the time these accounts reflected unsolicited trades. This meant that a client heard of some investment from friends, coworkers, or the media, and then called his or her broker to place the trade. But in the end it was the broker who made the money. So, one lesson of investing that I learned was not to trade. Each time you move money, it costs you. This takes a toll on your portfolio's performance.

Lesson No. 2: Know what the expense ratio is for your fund.
Then I discovered no-load mutual funds. Now remember, this was almost 20 years ago, and I was a loyal employee. At the time, it was impossible for me to place my clients' money into no-load funds. Both our computer system and our business model wouldn't allow it, and besides, I had bills to pay, too. But the fact that these funds were available interested me enough to do further research. And research I did.

I tore apart their return numbers over and over, comparing them to my firm's. One hundred percent of the time, the no-load funds won the competition. This was difficult for me to accept, since I was a company man. But I also wanted to do right by my clients. This growing dichotomy began taking its toll on me as I realized that I was not doing what was best for the people who trusted me. This was one of the reasons I retired.

I also determined that expenses matter. If a broker is taking a commission on a mutual fund trade, that money is coming out of your investment. So keep fees to a minimum. Have someone else pay for your broker's house; don't let it be you.

Lesson No. 3:Invest for the long term, and become your own expert.
Nothing can replace your personal involvement in your financial welfare. During my time as a branch manager, my firm would regularly fly me to New York for education on financial products we offered. Even though I could find tickets far cheaper, they insisted I use "our" travel agency and stay in an upscale hotel at ridiculous prices. Cruises around Manhattan and lavish dinners and wines were used as incentives, and they spoiled us. But where was this money coming from? The customers' pockets.

Commissions, expenses, and trading all have a financial impact on your portfolio. This seems simple enough, yet many still use full service brokers and are paying the price. I hope you're not foolish enough to be one of them.

In 1991, Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired from the brokerage and restaurant businesses to a life of international travel. Visit their website at RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, and check out their new CD book, The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement.


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