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opinion

What people do in the bathroom is their own business.

But when they trade stocks from the john, it’s a matter of interest to all investors because it suggests an overheated, speculative market headed toward a reckoning that will hurt young investors the most.

A fintech company called TradingView surveyed 1,750 Canadian retail investors earlier in January about their trading habits. Almost three-quarters traded from their home office, 58 per cent from their living room and 29 per cent traded from the bathroom at least once in 2020.

Trading from the bathroom suggests an urgency that fits right in with the current state of things in the stock market. Despite economic uncertainties caused by the pandemic, stocks have been surging. The most speculative stocks, those in the S&P/TSX Venture Composite Index, were up almost 100 per cent over the past nine months, compared with 19 per cent for the S&P/TSX Composite and 34 per cent for the S&P 500.

Overall, 63 per cent of participants in the TradingView poll said they traded more last year as a result of the pandemic. This is the special sauce of the stock market’s rise – trading occurring because people are stuck at home with plenty of time to ponder rising stock markets and find ways to participate. One online forum, WallStreetBets on Reddit, has been responsible for huge recent moves by several U.S. stocks. On Twitter, website outages at Canadian online brokerages are generating rapid-fire complaints about missed opportunities to make money. On Wednesday morning, Scotia iTrade was targeted on Twitter over a website outage.

Online brokers are choking on demand from their clients, new and old, to speak to live representatives about matters ranging from account setup, money transfers and trades. The cannabis craze a few years ago caused a minor version of this backup, but the last time brokers were so gridlocked was the tech bubble back in 1999-2000. A stock market crash ensued.

You can now trade stocks anywhere, any time, thanks to mobile apps, which is a great convenience and a benefit to all of us with a busy life. But when this convenience is commonly used to trade from the bathroom, it tells us some people are moving past investing into trading.

The kind of speculative, fast-moving market we’ve had since last spring can foster a sense of overconfidence about one’s investing acumen. A reality check is coming, though. Your next trip to the bathroom as an investor could be a response to nausea over your last few trades.

Young investors have been big players in the stock market action of the past nine months or so, thanks in part to the rise of commission-free trading apps such as Wealthsimple Trade and Robinhood in the United States. Both lend themselves to bathroom trading by mobile phone.

One of the interesting storylines to come out of the 2008-09 global financial crisis was how it scarred millennials. They turned into notably conservative investors in the aftermath, often choosing retirement-style portfolios with a big helping of bonds in their portfolio.

A sharp pullback for stocks would be worse this time around for the confidence of young adults who feel pretty good about things now. As a result of the pandemic and new technology, they’re more invested in this stock rally than young people were in 2008-09. They’re trading more and putting more value in their own perceptions of what stocks and sectors are the ones to be in.

These investors will lose money in the next market pullback, which will put them in good company because a wide swath of people are riding the speculative wave. Young investors have more time to recover their losses, but they can feel the loss intensely because they have only just started out and have small holdings to begin with.

The biggest risk is a long-term behavioural shift by a generation that will depend on the stock market to meet its retirement-savings needs. This could mean keeping money in savings rather than investing it, or investing more conservatively.

The problem with building a retirement fund conservatively in the years ahead will be that the bond portion of a portfolio may not provide much in the way of returns. Today’s young adults could be more dependent on stocks than any previous generation to reach their long-term financial goals.

Young investors, slow it down. Invest more, trade less. Trading is buying and selling for short-term gain, while investing is buying things you hold onto for 10-plus years. You don’t need to invest from the bathroom to do that.

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