What would the ice cream man do if Good Humor started selling door-to-door? What would your dentist do if your teeth could heal themselves? Cutting out the middleman -- eliminating a layer of cost and potentially self-interested opinion -- is more often than not the handiwork of wishful thinking than that of feasible reality.
However, did you know that you could buy into some companies directly through them or their transfer agents? No, seriously. Charles Carlson called them No-Load Stocks, a refreshing feat of evolution from the worthy DRIP (or Dividend Reinvestment Plan) camp.
Drip dry love
If you're not familiar with Drips -- or if you think that they are exclusively the product of leaky faucets -- a little refresher is in order. Through Drips investors who have existing positions in participating companies can continue to add to their positions through either the reinvestment of dividends or kicking in more money to acquire additional shares.
As a self-empowering investment vehicle, Drips rock. We wrote a book about them. We ran a real-money portfolio devoted to them. To this day, we have not one -- but two -- active discussion boards dedicated to these gradually rewarding critters for patient investors. (We also have a newsletter devoted to dividend investing.)
However, a few factors may have gotten in the way of the booming popularity of these plans. For starters, many brokerage companies started charging significant fees if investors wanted the shares set up in their name and delivered to them. That was typically required for Drip participation. The other more logical shortcoming is as simple as strolling over to our Discount Broker Center. Buying into a company, or adding to that position, is a transaction that will run you just a few bucks these days. The cost advantages of online trading have lowered rates to the point where it's no longer prohibitive to grow your portfolio a handful of shares at a time.
That leads us to the hundreds of companies that offer direct purchase plans. While there are more than 1000 domestic companies that offer Drips, fewer than a third of those also allow investors to buy into the companies directly.
With an initial investment of as little as $50, you can go through either the company or its transfer agent to acquire that first share and beyond. And these aren't exactly sleepy companies with fat payouts. Some of the offered stocks such as Yahoo!
However, there's a rub here. Even though one would think that participating companies would do everything possible to draw trusted long-term investors, many pass on the administrative costs of these programs to the participants in the form of fees. As you can imagine, if you are going to get hit with account maintenance fees or charged princely sums for every subsequent investment, you have lost the advantage here. These no-load stocks be loaded, bub.
So while Carlson's Drip Investor site lists about 300 companies that offer direct purchase plans, the Moneypaper's newsletter site offers a list of Drips with no fees that sadly finds just four companies offering fee-free plans for investors to buy equity directly from the get-go. The four stocks? I figured you would get around to asking me about them. They are South Jersey Industries
Now this doesn't mean that you should run off and buy into any of these equities. This isn't a stock screen, filtering out for the most potent fundamentals and attractive valuations. It's a limited, narrow list that simply passes the strict smile test. In other word, just because these companies are inviting you over for a free ride doesn't mean that they will be headed in the right direction. However, wouldn't it be great to revisit this list in a year and see it widened?
In the end
A cynic may argue that a company has no business subsidizing these ownership costs. However, a public company already has to foot the bill of printing out annual reports, issuing dividend checks and maintaining an investors relations department. A little more overhead, while ironically in conflict with the reasons one would seek out a no-fee direct purchase plan, can probably go a long way if it helps secure a base of patient investors.
See, the folks buying in under these plans aren't the one-click traders who will bail at the first whiff of a stock's downtrend. The buying and selling intervals are too spaced out to prompt rash decisions. That doesn't mean that they kick in with blind faith and forgive the company its shortcomings. That doesn't mean that they ignore the fundamentals or relinquish the right to value their investments perpetually. That's all part of the ownership process whether the mind-set is for a short-term or long-term investment. So where is the flaw? In this volatile trading world where is the shareholder who wouldn't go for some subsidized stability?
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wouldn't mind being called a drip -- as long as you said it nicely. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool is investors writing for investors.