Another year, another stockholders meeting. Another exercise in that dissonance between being able to own a piece of a corporation in America, while being treated as an inconvenience, and dismissed – unless a question is innocuous and positive. One key to wealth generation with the US has been investing in publicly traded corporations. That continues to be possible, but as wealth inequality grows, as companies hide their finances, and as “they who has the gold makes the rules”, it becomes harder to see that the same benefits apply. I just attended the Annual Stockholders’ Meeting for MicroVision (MVIS) and continue to find myself equally fascinated by the possibilities while cautioned by several realities. (I congratulate their graphic designer. This year the poster had proper punctuation, though the presentation did not.)
My book, Dream. Invest. Live. was published so long ago that it is easy to forget that this blog is based on that book. Books are static. Personal finance is dynamic, hence this blog. As I prepare to write the sequel (something this blog is enabling), I wonder if that dynamic has shifted too much.
Paradoxically, even though information flows more freely because of the internet, the Internet Bubble, Enron, and the Great Recession (the Second Great Depression) inspired reforms that throttled information flow. If something is made public, it is readily available around the world. Unfortunately, in an attempt to level the “playing field” (as if this was a game) full disclosure requirements and forward looking statement caveats have provided management tools and excuses/reasons to conceal a company’s plans, operational information, and financial expectations from its owners – seemingly unless those owners are officers or managers. In a very well executed presentation of MicroVision’s prospects there were few quantitative facts, not even of publicly released financial data. If the company had proved the value of such secrecy by becoming profitable, it would be easier to believe the reticence was worthy. Competition sensitivity is real, but that reticence can be hard to distinguish from deciding not to mention mistakes.
Personal finance benefits from a person being interested in their finances. Prudent investing benefits from personal research. As research becomes more difficult for an individual, successful investing becomes more difficult. The simpler, more conservative alternatives continue to exist, e.g. no-load index funds; but the more aggressive alternatives become less attractive. If individual investing is only practical to those who have large net worth, then it becomes less possible for people with low net worth to significantly increase their net worth. Wealth inequality expands.
I’ve experienced the ability to grow a portfolio from a few hundred dollars to a over a million through prudent investing, a diversified portfolio, a modicum of research, and frugal living. Hence, my first retirement at 38 years old. Hence, friends encouraging me to write my book on personal finance for frugal folk. It may be possible to do that again, but I’m not so sure, anymore.
Companies seem to be more reticent, and more likely to use tax havens, and to use cash for financial investments rather than investing in research and development. Within the last two decades, automated trading has expanded from a few programs deciding what to trade, to advantages measured in nano-seconds and an emphasis on prices, hedging, and momentum instead of company fundamentals, strategies, and managerial effectiveness. Historically, shorts could be caught in a short-squeeze, an opportunity for longs to benefit from people who bet a stock would go down but instead went up. I hear echoes of investors looking forward to one, but shorting has become more popular and automated that effectively pessimism becomes more profitable.
I have yet to see the data, and it may not exist, but I wonder how much of the increase in market value is transferring to the majority. If the economic recovery feels uneven, is that one reason?
And yet, I continue to invest in the stock market. As my finances recover, I look forward to following my investing strategy: investing in small companies in disruptive technologies, and selling them after they’ve grown substantially. I continue to think that is possibly profitable for stocks like MVIS, AST, GERN, AMSC, and NPTN. (More about those in my Semi-Annual Portfolio Exercise, with a new one due at the end of this month.) Obfuscation, shorts, and computerized trading “should” not contain significant success. There remains the possibility that years of irrational pessimism about a stock can be followed by years of irrational optimism. I look forward to re-retiring.
I continue my journey from Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By, and appreciate you following my progress. There is enough uncertainty in the economy that any of my concerns can be negated by good news for my companies, positive financial reforms, or sadly another Great Recession. Considering history, the most likely future is one we can’t predict. Stay tuned.
For more about the specifics of the 2018 MicroVision stockholders’ meeting, go to Motley Fool, Investor Village, Silicon Investor, Reddit, or some combination. There, you’re likely to find other views and voices. Together we provide more than one perspective, and some do an excellent job at peering behind through the fog of obfuscation.