Tight budgets, wild markets hurt investment clubs

Mon Dec 12, 2011 12:02pm EST

Dec 12 (Reuters) - Not that long ago, it seemed like everyone belonged to an investment club. People would gather at a friend's house, share a few bottles of merlot and toast their soaring investments in Cisco and JDS Uniphase .

And now? Not so much. The number of investment clubs reached 60,000 before the bursting of the tech bubble. Now there are just about 5,500 still hanging on nationwide.

"Oh, the numbers are definitely down," says Adam Ritt, communications director for BetterInvesting, the Madison Heights, Michigan-based investors' association whose members include clubs around the country. "It's been a steady trend downward for a long time."

Atlanta's Patti Ghezzi was one of those investors who decided to pull the plug on her club. She had originally banded together with around 16 friends to form the "Bullmarket Broads" back in the late '90's. "It was so trendy back then," says the 42-year-old communications consultant. "I knew of some clubs that did nothing but make money for years. Nothing ever went down."

Fast forward 10 years, and the Bullmarket Broads had dwindled to six die-hards. Some members had moved, some had growing families and shrinking free time, and some were discouraged by the stock market's 'Lost Decade' and its multiple equity busts. "It got to be kind of comical," says Ghezzi. "We'd buy a stock and it would go down, and then we'd sell and it would go up. We used to say, 'Let's get together for our monthly meeting and figure out how to lose more money.'"

As a result, club members finally decided to call it a day in 2009. "In the late '90s, many of my friends were in investment clubs," says Ghezzi. "Now, no one I know is. We're in book clubs instead."

There are a few reasons behind the dwindling number of investment clubs. One is the stock market itself, which hasn't exactly been a model of calm and consistency over the past decade. As a result, nervous retail investors have pulled $101.6 billion from domestic stocks so far in 2011, according to the Investment Company Institute. "There's some fatigue with the market," says Ritt. "People don't like being whiplashed all the time."

But that's not the only reason investment clubs might be going away. In the old days, says Ritt, people often divvied up the heavy labor of stock research, digging into annual reports and making presentations to fellow members. Now, with the array of investing sites available - from Yahoo Finance to Morningstar - people can crunch numbers and perform their own stock screens with a few clicks of the mouse.

There's also the little matter of money: We just don't have as much of it as we used to. Indeed, Americans have $1,459 less in per-capita disposable income than they did in the second quarter of 2008, according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. With a shrinking net worth and standard of living, Americans can no longer speculate on stocks with buddies. That $50 or $100 a month might be better put towards the mortgage or food.

Portfolio performance might have something to do with it, too. Research suggests that getting a bunch of investors together doesn't tend to improve returns. One study by academics Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, "Too Many Cooks Spoil the Profits," found that the average investment club lagged a broad market index by 3.8 percent a year.

"From an investment perspective, it's a completely counter-productive exercise," says Dan Solin, author of books like "The Smartest Portfolio You'll Ever Own." "People shouldn't be misled into believing this is a great way to increase returns, because it isn't."

Which isn't to say that investment clubs shouldn't exist. Just think of them as primarily social - a reason to gather with friends, to learn a little about the markets, to share that 2005 Bordeaux. Once you let go of any get-rich-quick expectations, and stop assigning blame for bad stock picks, you can preserve friendships and enjoy investment clubs for the social gatherings they are.

"Keep the stakes low, and don't take it too seriously," advises Ghezzi, who chipped in a modest $30 a month to her investment club. "Most of all, don't be unrealistic and expect to make a ton of money. Those days are over."

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The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.

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