The Future of Trading is Scary

My last post discussed Robinhood’s targeting of millennial investors, suggesting Robinhood was the real winner of the Snap, Inc. IPO. It may be hard to see how they “won,” given that Robinhood allows free trades. What they did was build a customer base by targeting a generation that expects everything to be free.

But how does Robinhood expect to survive as a “sub-discount” broker with free trades? Investopedia has some ideas: (1) low costs (no physical locations or PR campaigns), (2) interest earned from customers’ unused cash deposits, and (3) venture capital. That last one is the real reason Robinhood exists: $16M in venture capital. Future income streams will come from margin trading with a 3.5% fee, phone-assisted trades for $10, and a subscription service for pre- and after-hours trading.

If this is the future of trading, I fear for young investors. Free trades are bad enough because they practically encourage day trading, which is essentially the same as gambling. Trading on margin takes a dangerous thing like day trading and takes it nuclear (pronounce it nuke-you-lar for added emphasis). One of the top rules of gambling is to not do it with money you can’t afford to lose. With margin trading, people are gambling with money they don’t even have. This type of rampant speculation causes asset bubbles and subsequent crashes (see the 1929 Black Tuesday crash or the 2008 real estate crash).

Chapter 7 of Basic Personal Finance clearly explains why most investors would be better off automatically depositing a monthly amount into low-cost index mutual funds, which allow them to diversify and get higher after-tax and after-expense returns.

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