Don't Try This at Home Investment clubs just don't make sense as a leisure time activity--unless you're in prison.
By Andy Serwer Reporter Associate Melanie Shanley

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Bridge clubs are fine by me. Nothing wrong with bowling clubs or knitting clubs. I can even truck with the Hell's Angels, which, its members insist, is a "club," not a gang. Where I draw the line is investment clubs. Let me put it to you simply: I don't consider investment clubs a prudent use of one's time.

There are many reasons I believe this. For starters, bridge, bowling, knitting, and hell-raising are all about tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. In other words they're about having fun. Investing, on the other hand, isn't fun. It's work. And if you think it's fun, then you should be doing some serious time on the couch--which would then become your primary leisure activity (as it is for so many in Manhattan).

Investment clubs have been around quite awhile, probably as long as folks have been losing money on their investments. ("Ve woted to go long on da tulips!") The longest-running investment club in the country, according to the National Association of Investment Clubs (NAIC), is the Hamilton Trust of Boston, which is now 120 years old. This, I suspect, is an exception.

Today there are investment clubs for Americans of every stripe and star. The Sky High Investment Club of western New York is composed primarily of fire truck refurbishers and builders. There's an investment club made up of employees from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. (Yikes!) The Common Cents investment club of southern Illinois was formed on "a biblical foundation." And then there's the investment club for MENSA members, which, predictably enough, suffered from horrible performance and disbanded a while back.

Even given this cheery list of investment diversity, there are far fewer clubs today than there were when (you guessed it!) the market was at its peak. Membership of the NAIC was around 7,000 clubs in 1990, then exploded to 37,000 by the end of 1998. Today the figure is down around 28,000. But the most famous, or should I say infamous, club from back in the roaring 1990s was the Beardstown Ladies' Investment Club.

As you may recall, Beardstown (a small Illinois burg once known as "Porkopolis" because of its pig trade) was apparently populated by a bevy of oh-so-commonsensical grandmotherly types who beat up the market year after year by sticking to their knitting. (Ah, if only they had!) The Beardstown Ladies became a media smash, appearing on national TV shows and selling oodles and oodles of books. Turns out the Ladies had dropped a few stitches. Which is to say they may or may not have included their membership dues (which amounted to thousands of dollars) in their performance figures. In any event the Ladies now acknowledge that their numbers were exaggerated (unintentionally or otherwise) and that their results lagged behind the market. That doesn't seem to have crimped their marketability. You can still buy five of their titles at Amazon, including the The Beardstown Ladies' Stitch-in-Time Guide to Growing Your Nest Egg.

Okay, so the Beardstown Ladies weren't all they were cracked up to be. How much harm is there in that? Maybe a lot. According to Ken Janke, head of the NAIC, investment clubs used to be overwhelmingly male. In 1960 investment club membership was "about 90% male and 10% female," he says. "Today we find that we are 65% female and 35% male." Now, obviously, a big part of that shift has to do with women entering the workforce and becoming attuned to business. But Janke says, "The phenomenon of the Beardstown Ladies...they really opened the door for an awful lot of people who said, 'Hey if these 15 women from outside Peoria could make this much money, I can too.'" Except, of course, that the Beardstown Ladies really didn't.

I have some other problems with investment clubs that involve human psychology. First of all, a club is a group, and humans tend not to distinguish themselves thinking in groups. Too often investment clubs get caught up in the same malarkey everybody else does, because people in a group, more than as individuals, want to get along. "We've taken the worst beating on our Cisco and Intel," says Dolores Engebrecht, president of Silk STOCKings (get it?), a group of mostly retired guidance counsel-ors from Fort Wayne. "I guess we're down about 30% the last 22 years."

Investment clubs don't lend themselves to making speedy decisions either. The Sky High club meets at a converted barn. Says club president Norman Smith: "Sometimes we'll have two or three [stocks] on the table, and we'll have to decide which is the best stock to purchase at the time. We only meet every other month, and it takes two or three meetings to decide to buy a stock." So much for bolts from the blue!

Investment clubs sometimes seem to bring out people's inner Gallagher. I'm talking some strange behavior. I was reading a transcript from a segment on investing clubs that aired on the CBS Early Show a while back. A woman named Lisa from the Circle City Investment Club (mostly engineers from Indianapolis) was explaining her group's methodology, which was based on the running of the Indy 500. Says Lisa: "What we do is we first look at the average speed at the Indianapolis 500 and divide that by the number of cars running at the finish, okay?" No, Lisa, not okay.

The only case I can think of where investing clubs make sense is among the inmate population. These are people who are focused, who have time on their hands, and who have no distractions (except for a little mumblety-peg.) At the Oregon State Penitentiary, groups of inmates have studied investing in a financial-responsibility class. Some convicts, according to a spokesman, are already members of the NAIC. The interest in investing makes sense, he says, because "most of the people are here due to financial issues of some form." Hmmm, maybe he has a point. Just this past January, five convicts in the East Jersey State Prison finished third in a statewide stockpicking contest. One of the cons, Michael Williams, 37, who's doing time for robbery, was interviewed by the Newark Star Ledger. Explaining his previous opinion of Wall Street and investing, Williams said, "I thought it was a scam." Now that may be a little strong, but you have to admire the man's skepticism.