Markets

To Democratize the Stock Market, We Have to Change its Culture

By: Leif Abraham, Co-CEO of Public.com

In recent months, a surge of new and young investors have entered the market through modern investing platforms. This boom sparked a conversation about the degree to which novice investors should have access to the stock market. Should investing really be that easy? And are intuitive experiences leading new investors down a dangerous path?

I believe getting more people and more young adults invested in the stock market is important. Not just for them to build their wealth, but to build their financial literacy.

I didn’t start actively investing until after I was 30 years old. I wake up every morning kicking myself that I did not start earlier, and I’m definitely not alone. In a recent survey of ~3,000 investors from our community, 24% of respondents said they didn’t learn the basics of investing until after their 30th birthday.

The fundamentals of personal finance and investing are not typically taught in schools, leaving people to learn on their own. In that same survey, 55% of people said they were self-taught (versus 12% who learned in school). It’s no wonder so many people find investing to be an inaccessible tool for them. It’s completely alien to millions of people.

The knowledge gap, not surprisingly, translates to a wealth gap. The stock market has produced average returns of ~10% annually, but a little over half of Americans have any positions in the stock market whatsoever, including through 401Ks and pensions. The other half is stuck on the sidelines.

The democratization of the stock market is a great thing, but simply making all tools available to everyone is not. Investing apps have a responsibility when it comes to the way they provide access to novice investors and the specific tools they offer. There are important nuances here.

Giving options trading with margin loans to inexperienced investors is not democratization — it’s irresponsible and dangerous. If young people get burned during their first experience with the stock market, they might never come back.

The common perception is that democratization simply means making things more accessible. But democratization can’t just be about access; it’s about making investing more approachable. That approachability is created by empowering people to learn about investing and being surrounded by proper safeguards while they get their feet wet in the markets.

The markets for everyone are also the markets for new investors, and that comes with the responsibility to help protect them.

When Hertz was approved to print and sell new shares, despite having filed for bankruptcy, new investors simply didn’t understand the situation, and the popularity of Hertz stock went up. At Public.com, we halted the buying of the stock on the app to protect our members. Investors of all abilities deserve guidelines and the opportunity to understand the risks associated with every investment. 

We see efforts like these as a start, but not enough. The culture of the investing community has not been very inclusive and welcoming of inexperienced investors. 

Historically, investing culture has been dominated by white males, "Wolf of Wall Street” memes, and #yolocalls. Many subreddits and groups are far closer to gambling culture than they are to investing culture.

Our company is on a mission to shatter these stereotypes and build a community where investors of all backgrounds can participate and learn from each other. 

In Public, investors can share why they believe in companies and have dialogues with other investors. In our community, a diversity of thought means more opportunities to learn. We would argue that people can become more well-rounded students of business by engaging with people who do not look or think like them. 

For example, on our platform, one of the more experienced investors in our community noticed that a few people had invested in specialized ETFs (which the SEC deems risky relative to other securities) and started a thread to help educate others on the differences of these funds.

In another case, during the Black Lives Matter protests, two Black women started investing in the four S&P 500 companies that are run by Black CEOs in order to bring attention to the fact that there are only four. Their actions inspired a constructive conversation about the lack of diversity at the top of public companies. 

During the insurance company Lemonade’s IPO, a large chat group formed to discuss the S-1 filing. People who analyzed the company explained their findings to the rest.

Democratizing the financial markets is a task of inclusion, and to include everyone the culture must evolve. The next generation of investors will be marked by a diversity of background and thought. They will come from all sorts of professional backgrounds—creatives, freelancers, teachers—and walks of life. 

In the same way, a well-diversified portfolio is considered a less risky one, a diverse culture around the stock market can build stronger financial literacy and truly open the public markets to the public.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.