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Let’s learn about stocks and investing.  Does that thought give you the creeps?  I hope that this article will help alleviate that and give enough background to at least help you be less worried about the endeavor of looking at the stock market.

My goal here is not only helping you to understand what’s going on with your own investment portfolio or retirement, but also giving you enough information to know what your investment advisor is talking about or possibly, if you’re brave enough, to begin playing the market and choosing your own stocks.

 

What Exactly is a Stock?

To begin with, the terms “stocks” and “equities” are sometimes used interchangeably.  This is because owning stock is literally owning a small piece of a company, or as they say having “equity” in that company.

In many stocks, that equity ownership may also give you a vote and partial (albeit miniscule) voice in some decisions of that company.  This occurs through your right to vote in certain decisions like members of the board of directors, and if you own a variety of stocks you will likely be mailed several absentee voting ballots whenever a vote comes up.

Now unless you’re a major hedge fund manager like Ray Dalio at Bridgewater Associates your vote won’t actually change the tide in how the company is run, but it is still is nice to know that you have a voice.

This has changed recently with several founder-run and high-profile technology companies (Facebook, Snapchat and Google to name a few) only issuing “non-voting stock,” which means that you can buy shares as an investment but not have any voice.  This practice was started to ensure that the founders would retain control of the company, no matter how many shares an outside party bought up.  NASDAQ (definition below) recently put out word that they wouldn’t allow companies issuing only non-voting stock to be listed on their exchange, so we’ll see how long that persists.

If you’ve heard the term “activist investor” which is the current-day term for the popular 1980’s “corporate raiders” (think Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman,” Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” or in reality the Instagram star (and Navy SEAL dropout) Dan Bilzerian’s dad), this is why those founders chose to keep votes to themselves.

Once a company “goes public,” meaning they’ve issued an IPO (Initial Public Offering of stocks) there are some who choose to buy enough shares to actually control the company, get seats on the Board of Directors or just trash the stock.  It’s a dirty business, but some people have become filthy rich doing it.  

 

Why Does a Company Offer Stock?

When a company needs to raise capital (money to invest) they have a few options other than just selling their product or service:

  1. Issue debt in the form of bonds
  2. Issue stock
  3. Go to the bank.  But nobody likes banks, and bank debt is typically much more expensive than the first two options.

So why would a huge company like Apple choose to issue bonds for debt if they’re the most profitable company on the planet?  

This is where we can get into pretty complicated finance, but instead let me break down $120,000 worth of MBA finance classes for you in a quick second: they can write off the interest they pay on debt to reduce their taxes.

There are also two different main types of stocks that a company can issue: Common Stock and Preferred Stock.  All you really need to know is that common stock is typically the type you would buy through a brokerage (Fidelity, Charles Schwab, etc).  

Do you remember earlier when I said that a company can raise capital through stock, bonds or bank debt?  In the event that a company goes bankrupt, there is a specific order of who gets paid back first: debt holders, preferred stock holders and lastly common stockholders.  

Of course there are quite a few more intricacies than that, but if you’re learning about stocks through this article, just stick to common stock.  One of the key lessons in investing is this: if you don’t fully understand it, don’t invest in it.  

 

What in the World is a Market Cap?

You may have seen the terms Large Cap, Mid Cap and Small Cap.  This is based on the market capitalization of the company, which is just a fancy way of saying the total value of outstanding shares on the market (how much money worth of stock they’ve issued).  It is broken down in the following tiers:

  1. Large Cap: more than $10 billion
  2. Mid Cap: between $1 billion and $10 billion
  3. Small Cap: less than $1 billion

Now there is one thing inherent in the stock market that should always be in the back of your mind: values can change vastly in a matter of minutes, days, hours, weeks etc.  I currently own one particular stock that has appreciated over 100% in less than a year, and i’ve owned others which depreciated that much in a shorter time frame.  

We’ll get into options later in the Heroes Finance courses in which I will teach you how it’s possible to make money on the stock moving in either direction (up or down), but that’s a little more advanced than what we’re talking about in this article.

 

What are the Different Stock Markets Available?

You may hear people commonly refer to “the stock market” and then throw out a few acronyms.  There are actually a few different listings of markets that you can pay attention to, so below are the two main ones for us in the United States and what they mean.

Keep in mind that the exchanges don’t actually own the stock; they are merely the place in which buyers and sellers connect.  To start investing, you must first start and fund an account with a brokerage or broker (explained later), which you can then use to connect to an exchange.  

One of these exchanges actually operates as an auction.  Have you ever seen the old movies showing the exchange floor littered with paper, full of people yelling prices at each other?  The yelling has been replaced with digital terminals, but it’s still the same in principle.  

If your brokerage allows you to see the price action (where the auction currently is), when you look up any particular stock you may see three numbers: bid, ask and volume.

The “bid” is the price at which a potential buyer is telling that exchange they would like to buy a share of that particular stock.  The “ask” is the price at which a seller has told the exchange they would be willing to sell their shares for.  The difference between these two is known as the “bid-ask spread.”  And volume is just that: how many shares have traded hands on that day.

Although it seems rather confusing, the stock market works on your basic supply and demand format…with a lot of extra variables thrown in.  At its most basic core, there is a specific supply of shares for a certain stock which that company has issued.  The company will set the price at IPO, but after that it’s up for the market to decide where the price goes.

If there is a high demand for that particular stock and its finite amount of shares on the market, the price goes up.  If demand is weak and nobody wants to buy those shares, the price goes down.  Again, this is a very simplified version, but it’s amazing how many people have never been given that simple explanation of how it works.

 

New York Stock Exchange (or NYSE)

The older brother of the two major exchanges in the US, the NYSE was started in 1792.  The example that I mentioned earlier of people screaming their stock auction represents the NYSE, which is considered an auction market.

The NYSE is also the largest exchange in the world in terms of market capitalization of its listed companies, and it has strict requirements for a company to be listed among its ranks.  These requirements include a certain amount of shares outstanding, a certain number of shareholders for its stock and, most importantly, the ability of said company to pay the NYSE listing fees.

 

National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ)

The NASDAQ started as the world’s first electronic trading market, and still requires its orders to be entered electronically.  This tech-spin attracted most of the big US tech firms, and you will notice that Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon are all listed on the NASDAQ.

Where the NYSE is an auction market, the NASDAQ is a dealers market.  This means that all deals must not only be entered electronically, but must also go through a dealer.  Most of that is behind the scenes for you when buying through a brokerage, but it’s still nice to know since we’re learning.

 

The Indexes and Averages

When listening to investment pundits or overhearing people talk about the market, the exchanges may seem to get thrown in with the indexes and averages from time to time.  There are a few terms below which may seem to get mixed up in the financial jargon that I’ll clear up for you here.

As we said above the exchanges are where the buyers and sellers of stocks meet to exchange.  Several composites and indexes of stocks traded on those exchanges and in the greater market exist, but these are not the actual places where the exchange happens.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard and Poor’s 500 Index, NASDAQ Composite and several others were created as ways to track some of the largest and most successful publicly traded companies.  To help clear up the confusion, I’ll briefly explain each below:

 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (or “The Dow”)

The Dow is the oldest, best known and most closely watched of the major stock market indices.  It is made of up a selection of 30 large-cap companies (remember that means more than $10 billion in market cap), which represent a wide array of US companies.  

The Dow has a few things that make it so popular: first, the companies contained in its index are so large that they can be considered to represent a very large swath of the US economy as a whole.  And second, they are comprised of many household names such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Apple, 3M and American Express.

You can purchase an ETF or mutual fund that tracks the Dow, but that’s for a future article.  For all intents and purposes in purely stock trades you can’t trade the Dow, so remember that it’s merely an index that you can use to track these companies.

 

Standard and Poor’s 500 Index (or S&P 500)

Much like the Dow, the S&P 500 is not an exchange but rather an index that tracks a particular set of stocks.  Unlike the Dow which is entirely made up of NYSE stocks, the S&P 500 covers stocks on both the NYSE and NASDAQ.  

The market cap for the S&P 500 is set at $5 billion, so with this in addition to covering both markets the S&P can be considered as covering a larger and more diverse representation of the US economy as a whole.

 

NASDAQ Composite Index (not to be confused with the NASDAQ Exchange)

Where the Dow is exclusively stocks traded on the NYSE, the NASDAQ composite index is made up exclusively of about 3,000 common stocks and similar equities traded on the NASDAQ.  Unlike the other composites this one is not limited to companies which have a headquarters in the United States.  This gives it a much broader representation of the (global) economy than even the S&P 500, which is why it is frequently reported in the financial press.

 

What Categories of Stocks Do Investors Look For?

Now that we know why a company would issue stock, what indexes track that stock and which exchanges the trades are made on, why would you invest in it?  There are a few categories of stocks that can help you understand what to look for based on your objectives:

Blue Chip

Blue-chip stocks are those which represent some of the largest and most respected companies on the market.  These are usually companies that have a long-term success rate of strong profits and most offer good dividends.  These stocks are usually very stable in terms of pricing, so while they are good to maintain value (typically) and earn dividend payments, they don’t have as much upside growth potential as other types of stocks.  Many companies in the Dow or S&P 500 may be considered blue chip stocks.

That being said, do you remember when I mentioned earlier that I’ve held stocks in the past that depreciated rapidly?  I held Lucent Technologies through the dot com bust, which was regarded at the time as a blue chip stock until they went completely bankrupt and the stock ceased to exist.  

I’m not mentioning this to scare you, but to remind you to do your research, choose wisely and stay tuned in to news about any company that you invest in.

Growth

A growth stock is just that; one that represents a company whose focus is on growth.  These companies tend to focus on increasing capital value rather than yielding high income.  They typically won’t pay a dividend as they use the money to re-invest in themselves (a dividend is paid from profits which a company returns to the shareholders rather than reinvesting in the company).  

These stocks typically have a lot of room to go up in value, but that doesn’t mean they always will.  Technology companies are usually a good example of growth stocks, but as with anything else in tech there is a chance of competitors outshining them or something happening that causes their price to fall.  Usually very quickly if they do.

On the upside, when a new technology is introduced by the company or they have an exceptional earnings report these companies can skyrocket overnight.  A good example of this would be Nvidia (ticker : NVDA), a semiconductor company that has gone from $65 to $207 per share in the past year.  

I’ve held NVDA for quite awhile, and it isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Because this is a technology and growth stock, I’ve watched the price plummet many times when either a competitor (like AMD) releases a new product or their earnings report is less than perfect.  

For an investor like me, every significant drop in price is another opportunity to buy.  But again I play in a lot of options to protect my downside, so just make sure you have an exit strategy or nerves of steel if you’re thinking about walking into the growth stock arena.

Momentum

Momentum investing is more of a strategy than a particular stock, but it’s important enough to mention here.  Many advanced investors pay close attention to trends emerging in the market through the use of charting tools or algorithms.  When they see upward momentum forming in a particular stock or sector, they invest heavily.  On the downside, when they see downward momentum starting they sell, take short positions or place put options (all of which we’ll discuss in the options article to follow).

Income

Income stocks are those which pay you income in the form of dividends.  I mentioned earlier that a dividend comes from a company who has profits and chooses to pay at least some of those back to the shareholders.  This is a good strategy for people who may be less risk-averse than others or at a time in their life where they prefer to keep their money “safe” (but it should be said here that no publicly held stock can truly be considered “safe”) and use the dividend payments as income in their retirement or later years.  

This is also good for those who can choose to re-invest the dividends rather than take the income, as the reinvestment will literally make your number of shares grow over time.  If you want to see the power of re-investing dividends, do a quick web search for:

What would $10 invested in Coca Cola in 1920 be worth today.

I’ll wait for you to get back.  It’s worth the learning experience.

Pretty nice, huh?  That’s the value of dividend reinvesting and having a long-term plan & outlook.

Mitt Romney was lambasted during his election campaign because he paid, as a percentage, a smaller amount in taxes than many on the Left thought he should be paying.  Much of this income came through investing, as income from stock that you’ve held for a certain amount of time (I don’t want to quote a timeline in case the IRS changes it before you read this article) is taxed at a more favorable rate than regular income.  Essentially the idiot press ridiculed him for being a wise investor.  Go figure.

Value

Another investment style that has made Mr. Buffett rich has been that of value investing.  While growth stocks are typically overvalued because many more investors and speculators crowd into them, driving up the price (remember it’s all based on supply and demand), value stocks are the opposite.

They are what can be thought of as “a good deal,” or as Mr. Buffett calls them “cigar butts with one puff left in them.”  Value investing is a long-term strategy, so you can’t expect to get rich overnight on most of these.  They also require a lot of research; value investors look at the price of a stock vs the company’s reported earnings (commonly referred to as the P/E ratio) and/or sales to see if they believe there is more value in the company than its stock price suggests.

When earnings season comes around and a value stock has an exceptional report, or they announce news that makes the market take notice, their price can change significantly overnight.  However, sentiment in the market is just as important as the fundamentals of the actual company.  Even if a company has stellar reports, is a blue chip or has great earnings, that doesn’t always mean that their stock price will reflect it.  Just have a look at American auto manufacturers this year vs Tesla.  

American auto has been knocking it out of the park in terms of their business but their stock prices have not been moving.  Tesla, on the other hand, is unprofitable and burning through cash at a rapid pace while their stock skyrockets.  Much to the chagrin of my finance professor, the Efficient Market Hypothesis (which states that any news will immediately be reflected in a company stock price) doesn’t always hold true if the sentiment of investors is against it.   

Cyclical

A cyclical stock is one whose prices are affected by the ups & downs of the overall economy and business cycle.  These are can be companies who sell discretionary items that consumers tend to cut back on when times get tough, or certain sectors which operate in a cyclical nature (think auto manufacturers, airlines, restaurants, etc).

Many investors try to “time the market” and use analysis to determine where they are in the business cycle, how the overall economy is performing and when these stocks will go up or down.  I will note that if “timing the market” were easy to do, we would have quite a few more investment billionaires than we currently do.  It ain’t easy.  

Defensive

A defensive stock is one that is considered to perform with a low correlation to the overall market.  This means that it should either stay stable regardless of what the overall market is doing, or some may even go up when the market goes down.  

These should not be confused with defense stocks, which refer to companies that operate in the defense industry like Raytheon or Northrop Grumman.  

For some examples of defensive stocks you can look at utilities, consumer staples and some commodities.

 

Types of Investing Analysis

Aside from the actual stocks and categories themselves, there are a few different ways in which investors, traders and analysts view both the overall market and individual stocks with respect to how they will be investing.  

The methods below are not the only types of analysis that exist, but anything beyond these are going to be too advanced for this article.

Contrarian

This is my favorite type of investment principle and analysis, mainly because it follows the KISS principle [Keep It Simple, Stupid].  A contrarian investor does the opposite of what the masses are doing.  This sounds easier than it is, because it takes nerves of steel.

When everyone is buying because they are sure it’s a bull market, a contrarian investor sells or waits with cash on the side.  This is a herculean task, because people making money hand-over-fist in a bull market love to brag and tell contrarians or anyone sitting out of the market how stupid they are for missing such a great opportunity.

But when the market later crashes (as it always does at some point) and everyone panics (as everyone does, at some point), contrarian investors buy everything at fire sale prices while the masses are selling as fast as they can, at any price.

The greatest disparities in wealth are made during times of economic duress.  Or as Baron Rothschild is quoted as saying “the time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.”  This is the contrarian investor’s time to shine, but it takes great patience to see it through.

Technical

Technical analysis is the process of using charts, buying volumes or any other number of indicators in an attempt to guess the future path of a particular stock, or the greater market, before it happens.  

When NASA cut its funding, many of the eggheads from MIT or literal rocket scientists made the move to Wall Street to build algorithms which do this.  And some people have just dedicated their life to the study of any number of various market patterns in attempt to spot trends emerging.

Long story short, unless you are one of said eggheads, leave this to the more advanced investors.  Or, do what I do and buy investment intelligence from those eggheads.  I’ll talk about that at the end of the article.

Fundamentals

Fundamental analysis for investing in the stock market is essentially what I explained earlier that value stock investors do.  Fundamental investors study the financial statements of the company being evaluated, rather than focusing primarily on the market or technical analysis of the charts.  They also focus on the factors that can influence the security’s value, such as macroeconomic sentiment or other market forces.  

Sentimental

As discussed earlier in the discussion of types of stocks, sentimental investors focus on the market sentiment regarding a particular stock or sector (no, they don’t sit around and cry like other sentimental types).  

The stock market is like its own organism, and while there are a plethora of factors that can make it change, market sentiment is what ultimately drives the market overall.  A company can be the best company in the world, but if the market doesn’t believe in its leadership or thinks that for some reason it’s not long for this world, it will be reflected in the stock price and movement.

Macro

I saved Macro investing for last because, well it’s in a class of its own.  Macro investing takes a lot of time because, it includes…everything.  A true Macro investor will use a little bit of all of the above styles (or cheat like me and buy it from other analysts) along with news, geopolitical situation, economics, competitive marketplace and everything including the kitchen sink to make their investment decisions.

Going full Macro takes up quite a bit of time.  When I’m in Macro-mode I wake up to the Wall Street Journal, check the market futures before they open, watch Real Vision while I’m on the treadmill and then sit down to do my actual investing research for the day.  All in, it eats about 12 hours out of my day. In this mode, even when I’m not in front of my computer I constantly get yelled at by my girlfriend for reading SeekingAlpha articles or checking the market while we’re out and about.

It takes a lot of time, but as they say if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.  As I said previously I nerd out on this stuff, and I truly enjoy doing it.  And of course when I go full Macro I typically earn about 10-15% higher returns than when I’m using a single style, so it pays off handsomely (if you know how to read the signs — which will also come in a later Heroes Finance article).

 

Where Do I Find Intelligence and Analysis to Help Guide My Decisions?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I highly recommend that you speak with a financial professional regarding your specific portfolio, as every portfolio should be different based on your risk profile, amount of money to invest, timeline until you need the money, age, debt, etc.  

However, even if you do have a financial advisor you need to keep them honest and make sure they are doing their job.  So if you want to do your own research, here are a few tools that I use.

The Motley Fool

I know, you’ve seen their ads in your email or on social media and they’ve pissed you off something awful for making you watch their video until the end.  I get it.  But…

I was buying investment intel from another company when I got suckered in and watched their video almost two years ago. They recommended NVDA, so I did my research, liked the company and put a little money in.  That was at $65 a share, and as I write this article the stock went above $207 per share in extended-hours trading this evening.  Yup.

And that’s not the only one.  I’m not a paid advertiser and have no interest nor incentive from TMF to endorse them, but I’ve been using their services for a few years now and I have to say I’m impressed.  They aren’t 100% right all the time, but when they are right (which is quite often) they are right big.  Really big.

I buy their Stock Advisor (basic growth stock tips — this is where the NVDA tip came from), Options and Total Income analysis services.  It’s cheap compared to the returns on some of the stocks they’ve recommended, and they have constant updates.  And again, unless I want to spend 20 hours a day doing my own analysis, it’s smart to go with a good pay-to-play service.

Real Vision

I started subscribing to Real Vision based on the advice of my investing mentor, an institutional investor who used to be the CEO of a large marketing agency but made more money investing than being a CEO.  The guy is brilliant and very successful, so when he speaks I listen.

Real Vision has a free podcast on iTunes that is good, but the web/app video services (you can find by clicking the Real Vision title above) are where the real value is.  They offer new videos every day of long-form interviews with some of the most successful traders, investors, portfolio and hedge fund managers on the planet.

Started by a former hedge fund manager who wanted to get the bias out of advertising-funded financial programming, they speak the language of these investing geniuses and really walk the walk.  They’re not afraid to call BS or offer their own commentary on why they think a particular guest’s thesis is incorrect, and they are spot on.

As I said I watch them every morning while I exercise and I’m a stubborn person who’s hard to entertain.  If you invest any significant amount of money, I highly suggest this service.

And again, I do not have any incentive or interest in Real Vision other than being a paid subscriber who is very happy with their content and advice.

MacroOps

I started getting advice from Alex at MacroOps at the suggestion of the same mentor who turned me on to Real Vision.  MacroOps is run by a former Special Operations Marine and, well, it just seems pretty comfortable to me being a former Green Beret myself.

This service is chock-full of information, and they will teach you to be a proper macro investor if it kills them.  I get multiple emails every week, from weekly breakdowns of the entire market (these can sometimes be 50+ pages of highly technical info broken down into easy to read language and explanations) to emails telling me to place specific trades at specific prices to webinars teaching me the guiding principles of macro investing and what led the greats like George Soros and Ray Dalio to be the greats.

I love it, but once again I have no vested or financial interest or incentive to sell you guys on it.  I’m just a very happy customer of theirs and hoping to point you in the right direction.

Seeking Alpha

Seeking Alpha is an interesting one.  It’s a totally free site that offers you the ability to construct your own portfolio on the site or app and sign up for any updates regarding those particular securities (meaning stocks, ETF’s, mutual funds, etc).

You can also sign up for daily emails and alerts whenever a new article is published to their site concerning your security.  And if you have any highly or mid-volume traded stock there will be quite a few.  

Take these articles with a grain of salt. I have a healthy amount of stocks I track through the site, app and email, and I’ve noticed that any popular stock will have opinions from both sides (some saying it’s a great investment and others saying it’s about to crash).

Those who get their articles published are paid by the site, so keep that in mind as well.  And I can’t say this with 100% certainty, but it seems like some people post articles in order to effect a stock price.  

Whenever I look at an article on Seeking Alpha I’ve found quite a bit of value in the comments section.  While other sites like YouTube have comments consisting of nothing more than hate and anger, there are some very intelligent analysts and investors who you will find regularly commenting on Seeking Alpha articles.  

Yahoo Finance

I’ve found that some of the Yahoo Finance videos are a little too biased and include too many political motives for my taste, but I do enjoy using the site and app to check the general market.  Yahoo Finance tracks extended hours trading (pre and post-market) which is of great importance if you want to know where the smart money is moving.  

And both the website and app are free, so they have that going for them.

 

So Now that I Know a Little Bit About Stocks, How Do I Invest?

Some of you may feel like I’m patronizing you by writing this section, but some of you may not honestly know how to start investing.  If you’re in this camp, it’s pretty simple.  If you’re not, move along to the next section.

There are a large number of brokerages through which you can start investing, and my listing of several here is in no way an endorsement of those nor disparaging of others.  If you’re reading this article to learn more about investing I’ll assume that you want a user-friendly interface and good customer service team so I’ll list a few brokerages known for that.

Once you’ve chosen a brokerage whose interface you like and have read some online reviews about their customer service, you will have to find a way to get your money to them.  Almost all have ACH and direct deposit programs now with which you can send money, all online, directly through your bank to get into your investment account.  Most also allow you to start up a paycheck deduction if you’d like.  

The first transaction will likely take longer, so plan accordingly.  If you have a 401(k) or other retirement plan from work, there’s a good chance it’s with one of the larger brokerages and you already have an account set up with them (although it may be a retirement account, so if that is the case and you want money that you can put in and take out at will without tax repercussions, you’ll need to set up an individual investment account as well).

Fidelity is a good one because the majority of Americans who have workplace 401(k) or retirement plans have them through Fidelity.  I’ve been happy with their customer service, ease of access and now their apps.  Their mutual funds offer a pretty wide selection, but we’ll get into that in a future article.

Ally Invest prides themselves on low fees, but Fidelity now has fees just as low.  I’ve never used them, but many people seem to be happy with this option.  TD Ameritrade also seems to be a rather simple one to use, as does E*Trade.

Some banks such as Wells Fargo and USAA now have their own brokerages, but from my experience their mutual fund options aren’t quite as diverse and fees aren’t quite as low.   

 

So What Now?

As we used to say in the Army, you now know just enough to get yourself into trouble.  This was a down & dirty quick summary of stocks, but the market is actually made up of quite a bit more than stocks alone.

The next Heroes Finance 101 article will dive further into investing and different types of investments.  By the time we’re finished I hope that you will have an understanding of most of the investment opportunities in front of you and can move forward with an educated decision for your portfolio, or speak knowingly with your financial advisor about what they recommend for your portfolio.

For now, I suggest you read up on anything above that interested you, and begin looking into the investing intelligence and analysis options that I gave above.  I’ve had quite a bit of success in my investing, but i’m not too proud to say that most of it is attributed to listening to the right people and following up everything I read or was told with my own research.  

So start paying attention to the news if you don’t already (especially the business and finance news), and I’ll be back soon to help you go a little further down the rabbit hole and closer to your own financial and investing literacy.