My uncle would tell a story of his investment in McDonalds in the early 1970’s. He was blue collar worker with no experience or understanding of the markets. He talked about taking his family to the local McDonalds for the first time and the physical experience he had. The smell of the food, the cost, the taste and the overwhelming experience of the family.
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Wall Street Versus Main Street
He was an uneducated investor making an investment decision on personal experience. No internet, no financial advisor, no Robinhood or TD Ameritrade, no understanding of the market but a strong belief that this product was different.
He sought out how and where to buy shares in McDonalds and I’m sure the execution cost far exceeded his initial investment. My Main Street uncle didn’t stand a chance versus the Wall Street pros.
But 50 years later Wall Street is in the midst of a wave of disruption that for the first time is allowing individuals access to trading opportunities, execution costs and valuations that previously have been the exclusive domain of large institutional players. The “little guy” can now compete on equal footing with the “big boys,” and not have to wait for cream to be skimmed.
The driver of this retail phenomenon of course is technology, which for the last several years has been opening doors for the individual investor and leveling the Wall Street versus Main Street playing field.
But three events in the last few months have blown the doors wide open:
GameStop Short Squeeze
First, GameStop, which is a truly remarkable story of how a bunch of day traders without securities licenses squeezed the professional short traders and made a killing. Through group chats on an electronic communications platform, access to real-time pricing and stock trades made through electronic retail brokers, the little guy could trade to-to-toe with the big boys – and turn the table on Wall Street’s heretofore smart money. The rise of the machine has brought with it the rise of the retail investor.
NYSE Direct Listing
The second event was the announcement late last year that the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a new kind of NYSE direct listing which could help startups save on bank fees and help their employees capture more of the gains in their share price when they go public. Rather than having to wait to buy in the aftermarket, these direct listings will, as Acting SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman said, “provide fair and efficient pricing for participating investors. Utilizing such an auction may have the additional benefit of increasing opportunities for investors to purchase shares at the initial offering price.”
And the final event is from my own shop, ClearList, an equities marketplace for private company securities. Genuine pre-IPO price discovery for private market shares has historically been a shot in the dark. There is no market maker and no price transparency. Fees and costs for both the issuer and the investor are outlandish, to put it mildly. None of the electronic efficiencies found in the public markets are found in the private markets – even though the private market is larger.
Addressing the cost, transparency and limited access to the private markets is the ClearList mission. We are offering private companies and their existing investors an issuer-friendly platform, while democratizing investor access.
I often think of my uncle’s McDonalds story and the investment criteria small investors would use to navigate trading decisions, if only they had had equal access. I wonder about a taxi or limo driver who may have invested in Uber as an opportunity to hedge their current employment or if my kids, who grew up in a digital world, would have recognized the potential of Facebook and invested.
But now the Ubers and Facebooks and McDonalds, and yes, even the GameStops, are increasingly accessible and those same types of companies in the future will be looked at and invested in at a fair and transparent price by all the little guys. The rules are being rewritten – everyone can get a first bite at an Apple or of a Big Mac.
About the Author
Bill White is the CEO of ClearList, an equities marketplace for private companies, based in Manhattan.