As long as it does the job well, I don’t care who manufactures the filing cabinet in my office. I bought it to hold documents, not organize them or write them for me. It’s not a service (someone doing work for you), it’s a commodity (a tool to do the work yourself).
What we have seen in the last few weeks is the final straw in the recent trend toward the commoditization of trading. Some brokerage firms have recently gone to zero-cost trading. It is essentially free to buy and sell securities now, and you can do it from your iPhone.
This is a phenomenon, brand new to our generation.
Historically speaking, it has always cost money to invest in the market. There was service involved. Someone had to actually take your order to Wall Street and bring you a receipt. Someone had to give you options of what you could buy.
It used to cost you money to hire a stock broker and pay him to research investment options. But with the massive scale that technology has afforded these big brokerage firms, they can now offer tech-guided research for free (even though they still charge you to get real, human service for your financial planning).
Technology has completely changed the game for investing, and that would seem like great news for investors.
But nothing of great value is ever free.
So why are they going free?
What’s happening is what is known in business literature as manipulations.
Manipulations, in the case of marketing, are not evil, they are sometimes just the means of business. You know you are being manipulated when there is a random celebrity on the commercial, when businesses drop their price in order to gain your business, when they give you free stuff to sign up, when they promise you their product will change your life.
Example: the old fitness-machine commercials with the chiseled celebrity telling you this product will change your life, and if you call in the next few minutes you will get a huge discount — PLUS, free steak knives.
Can you count the manipulations? There were four.
In the case of investing, the most recent manipulation war was what is called fee-compression — the continual lowering of price until the product is absolutely free.
The problem is this never really works.
They all struggle to differentiate themselves, precisely because they have become a commodity. And if all you want is a filing cabinet, then you’re in luck because they are basically giving them away free now.
But what if you want more?
What if you actually want the service, not just the product?
In our analogy, what if there was a service out there that would create all your documents for you, process them and organize them? Well, so what if you had to pay extra, we all understand that.
Nothing is too good to be true, it’s just too good to be free.
Adam Setser is a financial advisor with Kerrigan Capital and Risk Management, 3543 N. Crossing Circle, Valdosta.
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