I'm an average guy. When I travel to New York City, I stay at the Affinia Shelburne in Murray Hill. I usually pick up breakfast at the bagel shop just down the street, or the Pret A Manger at 41st and Lex. Maybe I'll grab a little lunch at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. And the last time I visited, I had a great $12 bowl of Tokyo Chicken at Momosan Ramen & Sake, Chef Morimoto's cool ramen bar at 342 Lexington.
I've never been able to stay at the Plaza Hotel, nor have dinner at Per Se or Masa. As I say, I'm an average guy. Not poor, by any means. But not so wealthy that I can consistently engage in pursuits where money is no object.
Perhaps that is why a particular point that Warren Buffett made in his 2016 Shareholder Letter, and the way he explained it, really caught my attention. You see, for about two years now, I have been writing on the topic of ETFs. As I have done so, I have focused on the issue of cost; of keeping your expenses low and putting as much as possible of the returns generated by the market in your pocket.
More than once, I have posited that the beauty of ETFs is that they allow even the "common man"-the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker-to benefit from being able to participate in the financial markets.
But I had not quite thought about it from the vantage point that such a person might just possibly be able to do as well as the wealthy. Until I read Buffett's letter. Let's see how he put it:
The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.
In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial "elites" - wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like - have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.
Ah, now there is a concept I can relate to. I understand full well that there are individuals who, on a regular basis, have access to things and amenities that are beyond what I can access. But along with that sometimes comes a sense of entitlement. Buffett puts it so well; a "feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best...something superior compared to what the masses receive."
Why, though, does Buffett bring this up? Is he engaged in an assault on the wealthy? Any such assault would of necessity be an assault on himself, as he is one of the wealthiest men in America. No, his argument is with the huge fees the wealthy often pay to high-priced financial advisors. Buffett argues that, because of that sense of entitlement, that feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best, it must logically follow that huge fees paid to financial advisors confer on them an advantage. After all, the "masses" can't achieve results that are just as good, can they?
Buffett goes on to argue that they can, and often do. In the title of this article, I refer to this concept as "the democratization of investing." I believe that ETFs play a huge part in this, and it is this very thing that inspires my writing.
As just one brief example, consider for a moment the millennial generation. The Pew Research Center defines millennials as those between the ages of 18-34 in 2015. While this generation has many advantages compared to previous generations, they haven't exactly had things easy from a financial standpoint. According to this article from Forbes:
Given all of this, according to that same Forbes article, many millennials have not expressed much interest in investing; some 80% are not invested in the stock market.
So, one of my projects late last year was to encourage millennials to make saving and investing their New Year's Resolution for 2017. In that article, I suggested not only 7 world-class ETFs to help them get off to a great start, but also a brokerage that would allow them to trade those ETFs free of trading commissions. How much did that advice cost? Just the time it took to read the article. I then followed that up with a second article in which I actually set up the portfolio. It is my goal to track the portfolio and provide regular updates as to how it performs, using the S&P 500 index as a benchmark.
Here's how Buffett wraps up this segment of his discussion:
Human behavior won't change. Wealthy individuals, pension funds, endowments and the like will continue to feel they deserve something "extra" in investment advice. Those advisors who cleverly play to this expectation will get very rich. This year the magic potion may be hedge funds, next year something else. The likely result from this parade of promises is predicted in an adage: "When a person with money meets a person with experience, the one with experience ends up with the money and the one with money leaves with experience."
I'm not sure whether I will ever be able to stay at The Plaza, or eat at Masa. But the next time I chow down on a burger and chocolate shake at Shake Shack, or that Tokyo Chicken bowl at Momosan, I will likely remember Buffett's comments, and find myself extremely grateful for ETFs and the role they play in the democratization of investing.