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Investing Basics

How to Fix Investing Inequality

Bob Herbert's final column for the New York Times, Losing Our Way, describes how income inequality has reached unacceptable, unsustainable levels:

Articles by Jon

By Jon Stein
CEO & Founder, Betterment  |  Published: March 28, 2011

There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.

Americans behave as if this is somehow normal or acceptable. It shouldn’t be, and didn’t used to be. Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent.

I agree with Bob that growing income disparity is a scourge and linked to a great many other social ills, either through cause or effect. Income inequality explains why American schools lag global standards, why it’s so hard to hire good technical talent here, why our political process is often seems broken and captive to large corporate interests.

Image Source: quinn.anya

And his column calls to mind the reasons I started Betterment – to do something good for our country, for the people of our country. To make things a little more fair, more transparent, more accessible. To take what I’d learned, and all the lucky breaks I’d had, and give back.

There’s been growing disparity in investing, too. The rich hire “family offices” and hedge funds and invest in private equity deals. These investment vehicles are OFF LIMITS to average Americans. The rest of us (with net worth below $1mm) are legally barred from investing in them.

Meanwhile, the rich get the best managers, who may have what qualifies legally as inside information (the only source of outsize profits in an efficient market), and at least have access to far more information than average citizens, so they get the best investment deals. The over-greedy investment banks and funds are allowed to trade ahead of every other civilian via high-frequency trading – and they own enough of the political and regulatory process that no one stops them.

I get angry about all this obvious injustice I perceive and I can get carried away. It suffices to say that I believe Betterment is democratizing investing, leveling the playing field, and making America stronger – one investor at a time.

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