Then and Now: Following Up with the New and Experienced Investors of 2020
In 2020, a surge of new investors entered U.S. securities markets for the very first time, and the FINRA Foundation and its research partners at NORC at the University of Chicago jumped into action to get to know just exactly who these investors were. Two years later, they followed up to see where those investors are now.
On today's episode, we're talking to Dr. Olivia Valdes, Associate Research Principal Analyst with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and Dr. Angela Fontes, a freelance researcher and founder of Fontes Research, about the results of the latest study to shed light on some of the most interesting findings and to pinpoint areas of opportunities for regulators, investor educators and firms alike.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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00:00 - 00:30
Kaitlyn Kiernan: In 2020, a surge of new investors entered U.S. securities markets for the very first time, and the FINRA Foundation and its research partners at NORC at the University of Chicago jumped into action to get to know just exactly who these investors were. Two years later, they followed up to see where those investors are now. And on today's episode, we're talking to two of the researchers about the results of the latest study to shed light on some of the most interesting findings and to pinpoint areas of opportunities for regulators, investor educators and firms alike.
00:30 – 00:38
00:38 - 01:19
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Welcome to FINRA Unscripted. I'm your host, Kaitlyn Kiernan. I'm pleased to welcome two new guests to the show today to discuss a new report from the FINRA Foundation and its research partners, "NORC" or N-O-R-C, at the University of Chicago and the Securities and Exchange Commission. This new report follows up with new investors who joined the markets in 2020. Joining us today are Dr. Olivia Valdes, Associate Research Principal Analyst with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. We also have Dr. Angela Fontes, a freelance researcher and founder of Fontes Research. Olivia and Angela, welcome to the show. To kick us off, can you each introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about what you do at your respective organizations?
01:20 - 01:56
Olivia Valdes: Sure. I am Olivia Valdes. I'm an Associate Principal Research Analyst at the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, and the Foundation's research team really uses research to better understand and serve adults in the U.S. to reach their financial goals. So, basically, my research is on how we can better understand people's financial capabilities so their financial knowledge, their access, behaviors, perceptions, and really how those things differ across different communities in the U.S. We also study ways to help consumers fight against fraud and financial exploitations.
01:56 - 01:59
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thank you, Olivia. Angela, how about you?
01:59 - 02:20
Angela Fontes: I am an independent research consultant but started this work while at NORC as a Vice President of the Economics Justice and Society Department. And the data that we use for the study actually also come from NORC's AmeriSpeak panel. My research really centers on investor decision making and household financial health in general.
02:20 - 02:26
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thank you both. Now, Olivia, can you tell us a little bit about the background of the study and what prompted it?
02:27 - 03:10
Olivia Valdes: The story of the new study really dates back to 2020, it's when we first studied these investors. There were just so many different media reports about the surge of new investors and we really wanted to get a better understanding of who they were. Were they really different from traditional investors or those who had started investing before 2020? And so, we went to the field back in October and November of 2020, and we surveyed adults who had first opened their investment account in 2020. And then we also looked at those who had accounts before 2020 and compared the two groups.
03:10 - 03:22
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I think looking back, the past few years have been a bit of a time warp for many. Can you remind us what was so unique about market conditions in 2020 that led to the surge of new investors and the original study?
03:22 - 04:17
Olivia Valdes: So, 2020 was a pretty turbulent year, I'm sure that everybody remembers. And it really also reflected in a pretty dramatic market volatility. So, there were pretty much extreme, rapid fire market disruptions all over 2020, and they were resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. And also, during the pandemic, we saw a lot of things close down. So, there were no social gatherings, there were no sporting events, just so many things that people were used to doing in their everyday life they were shut off from. And so that paired with some stimulus money that was provided to a lot of U.S. adults, they created this trifecta, this combination of having more free time, of having a little bit more money and just this crazy volatility that there was a surge of new investors.
04:18 - 04:22
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And when you first surveyed them in 2020, did you intend to follow up with them?
04:23 - 05:19
Olivia Valdes: So, even back then, when we were first serving them, we knew we wanted to see how they would fare later. They hadn't really experienced the market downturn. They hadn't really felt the tax implications of investing yet. And so, we wanted to know, well, what would happen when they did? And so, back then, many of us worried about the future outcomes of this new group of investors and so we had in the back of our minds that we really wanted to see where they would be in the future. And like I said, we surveyed those investors in October, November of 2020. Since then, so many things have happened: the GameStop incident, the rise of meme stocks, a market downturn, a whole lot of crypto-related events and activities, that it's only really increased our desire to study those investors. But yeah, even back then we knew we wanted to follow up with them, but now more than ever.
05:20 - 05:29
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thanks, Olivia. And so, I do want to turn a little bit more in depth to this new study that is just coming out. Angela, can you tell us a little bit about that follow up study?
05:30 - 07:02
Angela Fontes: Sure. So, as Olivia said, I think it became clear to us, even while we were putting together the original study, that doing something longitudinal could really yield some important and insightful information, both for consumers in general, but certainly for those of us interested in market regulation and investor education and security. So, we went back to these folks who had opened new investment accounts in 2020 and wanted to understand how things were going for them, whether they were still in the market. We were able to go back to these exact same investors, ask them to participate in an additional study, and then use those data to really better understand what had happened for them in the past two years. We were able to collect 480 responses, and we focused on folks from the original study who fell into one of two categories. Either they were these new investors who for the first time had opened taxable accounts for the purpose of investing in our 2020 time period, or they were investors who opened a new account in 2020 but had actually been in the market prior to that, so had existing accounts in addition to the one that they opened during that time period. And so, we call these our new investors, folks just entering the market in 2020 and are experienced investors, folks who had an account, but also opened a new one during this interesting time.
07:02 - 07:07
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And what kind of questions did you have for these new investors a couple of years later?
07:07 - 08:33
Angela Fontes: We wanted to find out a couple of things. Certainly, we wanted to understand whether they were still investing, whether this uptick we had seen in opening accounts, people entering the market, was a consistent phenomena where people were now going to be investors, hopefully for their life, or whether this was something that people picked up during the pandemic. As Olivia said, maybe they had a little bit of extra money and a little bit of extra time and thought this would be something interesting to do. And I think this became particularly important to us as we saw the new investors opening accounts in 2020 look quite different, certainly in terms of race, ethnic identity, income level and age. It was important for us to make sure, 'are these folks continuing to access capital markets through investing?' We also wanted to know whether the couple of years of investing had increased their knowledge about investing and whether there was some learning that was happening during this time period. We wanted to understand if their information sources had changed, where they were getting information. And then we were quite interested this year in asking about digital engagement and really how investors were engaging with the investing platform they were using.
08:33 - 08:42
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I want to dig into the findings now. So, just to begin, Olivia, what is the status of these new investors? Are they still in the markets?
08:42 - 09:11
Olivia Valdes: Right. So, that really is the main question—are they still investing? And we're really glad to say that by and large, it seems that they are. 80% of investors remain in the market. And there are some differences between those new investors that Angela talked about and experienced investors. So, for instance, more experienced investors said that they maintain their accounts compared to new investors. Still, an overwhelming majority are still investing.
09:11 - 09:21
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And were there any other noteworthy differences between the behaviors, like you said, of these new investors versus the experienced investors of 2020?
09:21 - 09:37
Olivia Valdes: Actually, and I find this pretty interesting, a fair amount of new investors said that they didn't know if their account was still open. So, about 16% of new investors said that they didn't know—it was three times higher than experienced investors.
09:38 - 09:45
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That is interesting, and it certainly seems like an important detail to know, especially if there might be tax implications.
09:46 - 10:16
Olivia Valdes: And on their account activity there were a couple differences there, too. So, we do see that a lot of investors are leaning in, but there are some distinctions between these new investors and experienced investors. So, almost half of experienced investors said that they had added funds to their accounts without making any withdrawals. And then there were also some differences in terms of those who withdrew funds. So, it seems that new investors were more likely to withdraw funds than those more experienced investors.
10:17 - 10:29
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Now, Angela, you mentioned another key question was, 'are these investors learning?' So, what about investment knowledge? Were there any signs of improvement from 2020 to 2022?
10:30 - 12:47
Angela Fontes: Yeah, this was an important topic for us and one we really wanted to dig into. So, we actually asked about investing knowledge in two ways. First, we have an objective, five-item quiz that we asked investors to participate in to assess their quantitative, objective knowledge. We also wanted to make sure we understood how investors felt about their investing knowledge, so how much they thought they knew. So, we asked a subjective question about how much you think you know about investing. And what's interesting and when we see a big gap between those two, that's when we become concerned, when we see subjective knowledge quite high and objective knowledge quite low. That for us is an opportunity to think about how we can provide additional investor education. So, what we did see is that it was quite low in 2020. In fact, we saw, on average, investors correctly responding to 1.61 questions out of five. I will note the questions we asked were tough questions. These were not easy, simple questions and they'll be available on the report when it comes out. But any way you look at it, scoring 32% on a quiz is not ideal and certainly concerning. As we know, these are folks already in the market. But the good news is that we did see an increase from 2020 when we look at our investors overall. We went from 1.61 in 2020 to 1.71 in 2022, which is about a 6% increase. So, modest, but still an increase. We did see our new investors indicate greater increases. So, for these folks, we saw about a 9% increase on average. What's additionally interesting when we look at investor knowledge is that when we look at the subjective scores for folks, those didn't change. So, subjectively, people think they know about the same in 2022 and 2020. But we know from looking at the objective scores people did learn a little bit over these past two years.
12:48 - 12:53
Kaitlyn Kiernan: So, that gap between what they know and what they think they know shrunk just a little bit.
12:53 - 12:54
Angela Fontes: Just a little bit.
12:54 - 13:07
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I know you asked investors if one of their goals was to learn about investing. Was there any difference between those investors who cited that they wanted to learn about investing versus those who didn't?
13:08 - 15:17
Angela Fontes: These increases in objective investing knowledge were not universal. So, there were some investors who saw greater increases than others. For example, investors who traded more frequently or monitored their accounts more frequently saw greater increases compared to those who didn't. And interestingly, those investing in stocks and ETFs compared to mutual funds really saw greater increases in that objective score. But the one overriding factor that we identified when looking at who had experienced greater increases was this, what we think of as, desire to learn. So, in the original study, we asked investors to identify their goals for their investing account. Why are you doing this? Why open this account? And one of the options was to learn about investing. And what we found is actually about 38% of investors selected that as a goal for their new account. And it's those folks who said, 'I'm learning as part of my goals for this account' who really showed dramatic increases in their objective scores. So, they started in 2020 with lower scores compared to individuals or investors who did not indicate learning. However, in 2022, their scores surpassed those individuals who did not indicate that learning was a goal for their account opening. In 2020, our learners, as I call them, had an average score of 1.44 on that five-point investing quiz, and when we reassessed them in '22, they increased their average score to 1.75. So, this is about a 21.5% increase over the two years, which is really substantial. So, we think that there's something there. There's an opportunity for folks to learn by doing as part of these new investing accounts.
15:18 - 15:38
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That is really interesting. So, it's definitely something to be said for learning by doing, but also being open to learning and wanting that to be part of your experience. So, another thing that the study looked at was the sources of information that individuals were using to make investment decisions. But Olivia, what changed there?
15:39 - 18:03
Olivia Valdes: So, back in 2020, we asked investors about a whole list of information sources. And in 2022, we do see some changes, some things that didn't really change that much. So, originally, we saw that while there were a lot of different sources that were cited, some were clearly more cited than others. So, first, a little bit about what hasn't changed. So, both in 2020 and 2022, the two most cited sources are number one, annual reports and company websites. So, about 4 in 10 investors said that they use these as a source of information. Number two, friends and family. About 35% said that they relied on friends and family, both 2020 and 2022, those two information sources they kept up their number one and number two spots pretty much unchanged during the two years. What was really interesting is what did change. So, back in 2020, one of the information sources that we asked about was, "other personal research." About 31% said that they use their own personal research as an information source. In 2022, we've seen that that's dropped quite a bit to only 22%. So, that was basically a ten-percentage point drop in the people who say that they are relying on their own research. It fell from the number four spot to the number six spot. It seems like people are relying less on their own research and more on professionals because another really interesting finding that we saw was that back in 2020, about a quarter of investors said that they use financial professionals as a source of their investing information—that jumped quite a bit to 33% of investors. So, it went from number six most cited to the third-most cited source of information. It's clear that maybe some of these investors have become more self-aware. While, maybe knowledge isn't particularly high, maybe those investors, they're opting to work more with professionals that do have the knowledge that in some cases they may lack.
18:03 - 18:20
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's interesting. Angela mentioned that the subjective assessment of investment knowledge didn't really change that much, but maybe subconsciously they are recognizing their own lack of knowledge, even if they aren't ready to admit it to themselves. So, that is a very interesting finding.
18:20 - 18:47
Olivia Valdes: I'll add too that these aren't just findings that we're seeing here. We're seeing a lot of the same findings emerge in our other studies looking at investors. So, in the National Financial Capability Study in 2021, when we looked at investors, the same type of pattern of information sources came to the top and we saw that in a lot of ways, new investors reflect what young investors are doing as well.
18:48 - 19:05
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thanks, Olivia. So, one question on the survey changed. In 2022, you revised a question to ask specifically about cryptocurrency, where in 2020 crypto was lumped into a question about alternative investments more generally. What did you learn from that shift?
19:06 - 20:49
Angela Fontes: So, I think it's pretty clear that over the past two years we've seen just an incredible increase in the attention paid to cryptocurrencies and ownership of cryptocurrencies or other digital assets. So, we didn't even ask about cryptocurrencies specifically. We had lumped cryptocurrencies into a broader, kind of other, category when we asked individuals what types of investing assets they have. As you mentioned, we asked it as "alternative investments." And what we saw was that people indicating that they held those types of investments was relatively low in 2020. We did, this year, really want to understand the crypto landscape specifically, and so pulled cryptocurrencies out of that category in the study and asked about it just individually. So, what we found is that about 14% of our new investors indicated they had some type of alternative investment in 2020. So, we know that crypto ownership is somewhere south of that 14% because they could have been reporting on gold, which is in the other categories. Fast forward to 2022, we see 28% of our new investors so, twice as many at least, indicating that they hold cryptocurrencies. Our experienced investors did have an increase in the holdings alternative in 2020 cryptocurrency specifically in 2022, but it was much more modest, so only about three percentage points increase for experienced investors.
20:49 - 21:03
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's very interesting, the difference there between the new investors versus the experienced investors. Are there any other noteworthy differences in the types of investors that do or don't hold crypto based on the study?
21:04 - 22:07
Angela Fontes: Sure. So, what we found in terms of who was holding cryptocurrency assets is pretty in line with much of the research we're seeing on cryptocurrencies. For our investors, those who held crypto were younger, considerably younger, about eight years in the mean age, eight years difference. They were more frequently Black, African American and Hispanic-Latino. And we've seen that pretty consistently in some of the other research around cryptocurrencies. One of the differences in our study compared to some of what we're seeing come out around cryptocurrency ownership was that for our investors, cryptocurrency owners were more frequently male compared to female. This is a little different population and so this is not a general population study, we're looking specifically at these folks who opened new accounts in 2020. And so that likely has something to do with that difference, but it was just different than some of the other research that we've seen.
22:08 - 22:19
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's interesting. Thanks for sharing. And we talked about general investment knowledge, but how did investor knowledge about, specifically, cryptocurrencies compare to more general knowledge?
22:19 - 23:55
Angela Fontes: Yeah. We did the same measurement approaches for cryptocurrency knowledge as we did for the investing knowledge. So, we had a five-question quiz that we were able to look at and use the mean as an average score. And then we also asked that subjective question again—how much do you think you know about cryptocurrencies? What was really interesting is that scores were actually higher on average on the cryptocurrency quiz. On the cryptocurrency quiz, the average score was 2.15 compared to the 1.71 we saw on the investing. Not surprisingly, cryptocurrency owners scored much better, so those reporting cryptocurrencies as part of their portfolio scored on average 2.94 compared to 1.9 among non-cryptocurrency owners. When we look at the subjective score for cryptocurrency knowledge, the picture gets even more interesting. So, while investors did a bit better on the actual crypto quiz than they did on the investing quiz, investors think they know more about investing, and so we see objective knowledge higher for cryptocurrency, but subjective knowledge higher for investing. In fact, twice as many investors indicated they had high or very high knowledge of investing than those who reported high or very high knowledge of cryptocurrencies.
23:56 - 24:22
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's fascinating. And I guess there's something to be said for all the media coverage and maybe something to be said for more humility around something that's newer to everyone versus investing, people might feel like they should know more. The question that had the lowest all-around response rate was related to fraud and cryptocurrency. So, I was wondering what was that question and maybe you can test me and our listeners.
24:22 - 25:48
Angela Fontes: Sure. So, we asked five questions and we tried to select questions both for the investing knowledge scale but also for the cryptocurrency knowledge scale that covered all of the different aspects. So, the one question we asked about fraud, and I will read it, it will be available on the report: Which of the following makes cryptocurrency transactions susceptible to fraud? And there's multiple choice, these were all multiple-choice answers. We were hoping to get at here that cryptocurrency transactions usually cannot be reversed, and so once a transaction occurs, it's occurred and that is something that could potentially increase susceptibility to fraud. Not many investors correctly answered this question—just under a quarter, actually, correctly responded to this particular item on the cryptocurrency quiz. First, cryptocurrency is now the most commonly used form of payment in the U.S. Two, cryptocurrency relies on blockchain technology, which is easy to hack. Three, cryptocurrency does not trade on exchanges. Four, cryptocurrency transfers usually cannot be reversed. We also offered an all of the above option and don't know option for folks who didn't even feel comfortable enough to hazard a guess.
25:48 - 25:53
Kaitlyn Kiernan: But I'm going to guess the final option of it can't be reversed.
25:53 - 25:56
Angela Fontes: Yes, that is the correct answer there.
25:56 - 26:16
Olivia Valdes: And this question has pretty big implications for consumer protection, protecting people against fraud, financial exploitation. Some of those options are a little bit hard. Definitely some challenging distractors there, but it really does have pretty big implications that so many crypto traders don't know.
26:16 - 26:40
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Definitely. That's all very interesting. The final thing you mentioned was that one of the new items in this year's report was the introduction of a section about digital engagement practices, that's things like push notifications or badges and confetti on the screen. It really runs the gamut. But what led to the addition of this section and what did you learn?
26:41 - 28:25
Olivia Valdes: This was a totally new area for us. So, many investment platforms are providing new digital experiences, different tools for investors. We see that there's new design features, social engagement opportunities, different game-like features and activities. And so, we wanted a way to ask investors how they perceive these features. Do they like them? Do they find them helpful? Does it enhance their investing experience, or does it detract those experiences? Are they finding these unhelpful? We gave investors a list of different design features, different digital engagement practices, and asked them to what extent do these hurt or help your investing experience? We also gave an out for investors who didn't have these type of activities available in their investing platforms. So, these results that I'm going to share are really of those investors who said that they were able to use these activities. Overall, it seems that investors really like when there are learning opportunities within the platform. So, 70% of investors said that they found that helpful or also when they can customize or personalize the user interface, almost 60% said that that was helpful to them receiving free stock, free crypto, also something that they liked when opening an account. And then on the other side of that, the features that they didn't really seem to like, many games of chance, they're not into that, the ability to select an avatar linking to their social media accounts—those were either unhelpful or really just detracted from their experience.
28:25 - 29:33
Angela Fontes: What we were really interested in when we added this section, there's certainly been some conversation and potentially some concern around these digital engagement strategies with investors and investing as a form of entertainment or gambling rather than, or in addition to, potentially, a strategy for long-term wealth generation and retirement security. And we wanted to understand how much is that true? And I think what's really interesting is that for many of these categories that Olivia laid out in terms of the less desired, we didn't ask simply whether folks appreciated these or not, but whether they in fact felt that these were, as Olivia said, detracting from their experience. And we see that several of these digital engagement strategies are detracting. A third of our investors said that these games of chance were making their experience actually worse. Almost a third indicated that linking to social media was really taking away, it was unhelpful to their experience investing.
29:34 - 29:48
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's really interesting and I'm sure any of our listeners at a firm might want to share that with their app development team. But just to start wrapping up, at the end of the day, what are your overall thoughts on the study? Angela, do you want to start?
29:49 - 30:56
Angela Fontes: I think the good news is that technology and the ability to begin investing with very little capital, this was something we saw very clearly when we first spoke with these investors back in 2020, but these have acted to break down some of the traditional barriers to investing. And we're really starting to see investors from historically underrepresented communities, which is a great thing and a really positive development. However, I do think that the research sheds some light on the need for continued investor education and certainly us to think holistically about investing, and include crypto in that, because we know that quite a few folks are now investing in crypto. We certainly want to make sure investors are able to enter the market and that they know enough to be successful. And so, I think this study really provides some compelling evidence that investors can learn by doing, but the need to see that as a goal is what's important.
30:57 - 32:12
Olivia Valdes: I agree with everything that Angela just said. I think that these findings are encouraging, overall. We are seeing evidence that investors are learning by doing and that they want to learn and that that wanting to learn has an actual effect on their knowledge. And we can see this as an opportunity for regulators, for firms, for educators. We can provide those educational opportunities because investors want them. They are seeking them. Relatedly, we're seeing this trend of new investors beginning to seek help from financial professionals relying less on their own research—that suggests that there's more opportunities to engage these investors. They want sources of information that they can trust, their understanding, their own limitations, even though, like you said, Kaitlyn, they're not reporting that, but it seems like that's what they're doing. And so, there's just opportunities for education, opportunities for engagement by firms, financial professionals. These people are out there, they're investing, and I think that's great news. Now let's give them the tools so that they can do what they want to do and invest appropriately with their needs and their goals.
32:13 - 32:20
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And are there any current plans to continue to follow up with this particular group of investors and to follow them on their journey?
32:20 - 33:49
Angela Fontes: Well, there's certainly more work to be done here. And so we're, right now, so excited about these results. But we are starting to have conversations about what's next and what are the questions we'd like to ask these investors longer term. We looked back at a two year time period, but what happens after five years? I think in particular this cryptocurrency increase we see is really compelling. We collected these data in sort of a unique time period. The survey was fielded after the market downturn, but before we've seen some of the cryptocurrency collapses that we've seen here in the recent months. And so I think what is happening for cryptocurrency owners now could be a really compelling and interesting study. One of the other pieces that we haven't mentioned of this study and is going to be reported out on in a subsequent report, we hope to get out in the next couple of months, is that we did include a new cohort. So, we surveyed investors who had opened new accounts for the first time or had purchased crypto for the first time in 2022. And so we have this new cohort coming in. We know that that, actually, cryptocurrency ownership is as popular, if not slightly more popular, as an entry point for new investors. And so I think following up with that cohort is certainly something we'd love to think about.
33:50 - 34:57
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Awesome. Well, I look forward to seeing that subsequent report as well, but that's it for today's episode. Thank you, Olivia and Angela, so much for your time and joining me to discuss these results. And I'd also like to extend a special thanks to the rest of the authors on the report. So, we have Katherine Mahar from NORC at the University of Chicago, Brian Mulford and Dr. Adam Bloomfield from the SEC, Robert Ganem and Dr. Gary Mottola from the FINRA Foundation so thanks to those authors as well, even though they weren't with us on the podcast today. But it was fascinating to learn about these investors and where they are a couple of years later. So, thanks again for your time and listeners, be sure to check out the show notes for access to the full report. We'll also include the investing questions in there if you want to quiz yourself. And if you don't already, be sure to subscribe to FINRA Unscripted wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have any ideas for future episodes or thoughts on today's episode, you can email us at [email protected]. Today's episode was produced by me, Kaitlyn Kiernan, coordinated by Hannah Krobock and engineered by John Williams. Until next time.
34:57 – 35:02
35:02 - 35:30
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