Ordinary retail investors, the Moms and Pops of the world, saw mixed results in 2014, with stocks erupting in volatility over specific news events such as the Ebola outbreak.
And this year is already off to a bumpy, volatile start. The Dow dropped 1.9% on Monday as financial markets plunged due to economic fears in Europe and the further erosion in the price of oil.
With that in mind, can Mom and Pop investors hope for a smoother ride in 2015?
First, let’s take a quick look back.
On the positive side, 2014’s drop in oil prices has led to cheaper gasoline and, for most families, a little extra money to spend on restaurants and consumer goods. For retail stock investors, 2014 was a jarring ride, however, if they hung on, investors eventually saw nice gains in stocks for the year, with the broad S&P 500 stock index returning 12%.
While that was good news for investors in stocks, retirees living off of their savings had another difficult year in the low interest rate environment. With near zero interest rates, retirees can no longer live off of their savings or municipal bond portfolios as they once did. These investors were forced to chase yield in junk bonds and other high yield investments, adding risk and the potential for volatility down the road.
Investors need to beware of investments in the oil sector. And if retirees and ordinary retail investors in 2014 invested in the oil and gas sector in a search for yield, they are likely getting crushed and many of those high-yield investments could be on the verge of default in 2015.
According to a recent New York Times report, Texas and other oil dependent states may soon fall into a recession. In another potential blow to Mom and Pop investors in those areas, home real estate prices are likely to fall dramatically in energy producing parts of the country.
If Mom and Pop investors owned Puerto Rico municipal bonds paying high yields to local residents, they likely were crushed. As regular readers of this blog know, the value of those Puerto Rico bonds plummeted in 2014 and those holding UBS closed end funds have suffered massive losses.
And 2015 is likely to be another difficult year for those investors. According to a recent Reuters report, the overall economic performance of Puerto Rico fell 2.1% year-over-year in November. Economic activity in Puerto Rico is at its lowest level in 20 years.
On the regulatory front, 2014 was another difficult year for investors. The SEC failed to enact the fiduciary duty rule which would require investment advisors to put their clients’ interests before their own. Unfortunately, no progress is expected on this rule in 2015.
Also in 2015, the remainder of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act will take effect. Signed into law in 2012, this law allows more risk to be heaped on investors. “Accredited investors”, meaning those with at least $1 million in assets, can now be sold private placement investments, which typically have meager financial disclosures. This again exposes investors to potential investment fraud schemes.
In 2014, Congress also slipped into a $1.1 trillion government spending bill a provision that pares back the Dodd-Frank law requirement that banks push out some of their riskiest trading activities to their affiliates that aren’t eligible for Federal-back stops.
And even the federal courts took a shot at investor confidence. In 2014, the courts reversed two insider trading convictions, ruling that it isn’t always illegal to buy and sell stocks using inside information, thus raising the bar for federal prosecutions. This decision did not do anything to change retail investors’ view that the investment game is rigged against them and in favor of insiders.
In retrospect, 2014 was a damn tough year for the retail investor. Moms and Pops saw little return on bank savings and the broad erosion of consumer safeguards has been devastating. The collapse in oil prices is only wreaking further havoc on an already jittery market.
With that in mind, here’s to 2015. Let’s have faith that the New Year is better for investors. We will continue to hope that securities regulators and the brokerage industry realize that investors should come first and be on a level playing field with the titans and princes of Wall Street.