Statement by Chairman Arthur Levitt Concerning On-Line Trading
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Washington, D.C., January 27, 1999 Chairman Arthur Levitt today issued the following statement to investors:
The Internet and other new technologies are in many ways transforming how our capital markets operate. There are clear benefits to these changes including lower costs and faster access to the market for investors. I believe that investors need to remember the investment basics, and not allow the ease and speed with which they can trade to lull them either into a false sense of security or encourage them to trade too quickly or too often.
Over the last two years, particularly in recent months, the SEC has been hearing concerns about retail, on-line (Internet) investing. In fact, the number of complaints concerning on-line investing has increased 330 percent in the last year. Some of the issues raised specifically relate to on-line trading, others are generic to all investing. The majority of them can be addressed through better education and investors ensuring that they have done their homework.
Every day, more and more Americans are investing in the stock market, and many of them are doing so through the Internet. On-line brokerage accounts account for approximately 25 percent of all retail stock trades. And, the number of on-line brokerage accounts is expected to exceed 10 million by the end of the year.
While the manner in which orders are executed may be changing, the time-honored principles of evaluating a stock have not. An investor's consideration of the fundamentals of a company net earnings, P/E ratios, the products or services offered by the company should never lose their underlying importance.
Investing in the stock market however you do it and however easy it may be will always entail risk. I would be very concerned if investors allow the ease with which they can make trades to shortcut or bypass the three golden rules for all investors: (1) Know what you are buying; (2) Know the ground rules under which you buy and sell a stock or bond; and (3) Know the level of risk you are undertaking. On-line investors should remember that it is just as easy, if not more, to lose money through the click of a button as it is to make it.
In recent months, we have begun to identify a number of issues every on-line investor should be aware of. First, investors must understand the issues and limitations of on-line investing. You may occasionally experience delays on these new systems. Demand has grown so quickly that many firms are racing to keep pace with it. In the meantime, you may have trouble getting on-line or receiving timely confirmations of trade executions. You should not always expect "instantaneous" execution and reporting. There can and will be delays in electronic systems. You should investigate and understand options and alternatives to executing and confirming your orders if you encounter on-line problems.
Second, investors may sometimes be surprised at how quickly stock prices actually move. For example, many technology stocks have recently had dramatic and rapid price movements. When many investors attempt to purchase (or sell) the same stock at the same time, the price can move very quickly. Just because you see a price on your computer screen doesn't mean that you will always be able to get that price in a rapidly changing market. You should take precautions to ensure that you do not end up paying much more for a stock than you intended or can afford.
One way to do this is to use limit orders rather than market orders when submitting a trade in a "hot" stock. The result for investors that do not limit their risk can be quite surprising. Say an investor wanted to buy a stock in an IPO that was trading earlier at $9.00 and failed to specify the maximum they were willing to pay using a limit order. That investor could end up paying whatever price the stock has moved to at the time his order reaches the market $60, $90 or even more. If, on the other hand, the investor submitted a limit order to buy the stock at $11.00 or less, the order would only be executed if the market price had not moved past that level. Investors should understand the risk associated with trading in a rapidly moving market and make sure that they take all possible actions to control their risk.
Third, I am concerned that investors buying securities on margin may not fully understand the risks involved. In volatile markets, investors who have put up an initial margin payment for a stock may find themselves being required to provide additional cash (maintenance margin) if the price of the stock subsequently falls. If the funds are not paid in a timely manner, the brokerage firm has the right to sell the securities and charge any loss to the investor. When you buy stock on margin, you are borrowing money. And as the stock price changes, you may be required to increase the cash investment. Simply put, you should make sure that you do not over-extend.
Fourth, while new technology available to retail investors may resemble that of professional traders, retail investors should exercise caution before imitating the style of trading and risks undertaken by market professionals. For most individuals, the stock market should be used for investment not trading. Strategies such as day trading can be highly risky, and retail investors engaging in such activities should do so with funds they can afford to lose. I am very concerned when I hear of stories of student loan money, second mortgages or retirement funds being used to engage in this type of activity. Investment should be for the long- run, not for minutes or hours.
Millions of new investors have taken advantage of the unprecedented access and individual control the Internet provides. But, new opportunities present all of us with new responsibilities, challenges and risks. The SEC will do everything it can to protect and inform investors during this time of great innovation and change. But, investor protection at its most basic and effective level starts with the investor. I say to all investors whether you invest on-line, on the phone, or in-person know what you are buying, what the ground rules are, and what level of risk you are assuming.The SEC has prepared some tips for on-line investing.