Interview with Norbert Schlenker: The Financial Wisdom Forum
Recently we had the opportunity to interview Norbert Schlenker, one of the earliest members of Canada’s Financial Wisdom Forum (FWF). The FWF suite of sites, which include a home page, a forum, and a wiki, is considered the Canadian sister site of the US based Bogleheads.org
We provide on overview of FWF here on Financial Page.
Financial Page : Can you tell us about the mission of the Financial Wisdom Forum?
Norbert Schlenker: Compared to other countries, Canada isn’t a very friendly country for public market investors. The financial markets are an oligopoly, dominated by a handful of large banks which own a large fraction of the investment dealers, brokers and investment fund providers. Some fund companies remain independent, but distribution is handled largely by high cost “advisors” paid via commissions on fund sales. Academic studies of retail investment costs generally place Canada at the high end among developed countries. Low cost investment products are available in the form of exchange traded funds and discount brokers, but advice is generally bundled and paid for via sales commissions and fees.
From the day it opened, FWF’s mission and tagline has been to provide an ad-free and sponsor-free place “where Canadian investors meet for financial education and empowerment.” The founders’ purpose was to provide a neutral forum for financial discussions by Canadian investors, without any possible conflicts of interest. The forum is owned by a closely held corporation and each of the shareholders is committed to these core principles. We have been approached a number of times to “sell out”, either by selling the forum itself or by taking advertising, and have always refused. (We cover our cash costs via donations. Forum administration is done by volunteers.) Our mission is to provide quality financial advice targeted to Canadians without any hidden agendas, without any advertising blaring, and at no cost to our readers.
FP: How successful has FWF been in reaching the public?
NS: Honestly, we are a marginal influence in Canada. We had some press coverage early on in our life which garnered quite a few members, but we don’t have a marketing budget. We rank on the first page in a google search for e.g. “Canada investing forum” but are placed below commercial and advertiser-supported discussion forums. The founders’ original hope that FWF might be a beacon that would call many Canadians to low-cost DIY investing habits remains a far off dream.
FP: We would be interested in the origins of the FWF, which I believe had its beginnings in the late 1990’s.
NS: I’m not the best person to answer the question because the other three (of four) founders met one another at a forum called “The Fund Library” back in the ’90s. In those days, there were only a few discount brokers (and they were expensive compared to today) and no ETFs to speak of. Canadians invested either through high commission full service brokers or via high cost mutual fund companies. The Fund Library was an attempt to get investors together to compare and discuss their options.
In 1999, a financial columnist at a national paper created a new discussion forum called The Wealthy Boomer to discuss similar issues. Jon Chevreau believed investors had interests beyond finance, so added a few sub-forums for discussion of other subjects as well. That forum, especially with Jon’s newspaper resources, quickly attracted a considerable following, including many of The Fund Library’s most active members and became a central and valuable resource for DIY Canadian investors.
By 2005, lack of moderation (particularly in non-financial topics), some bitter personal relationships that had developed over the years, and the high cost of maintenance because The Wealthy Boomer was custom software, were causing problems for Jon and members alike. Jon started taking advertising from sponsors to cover costs. FWF’s founders were active participants at the Boomer and wanted to help Jon move the forum to low cost canned software at a low cost host, without the necessity of advertising or sponsors and the resultant questions about conflict of interest. Unable to come to agreement, we created FWF. Nine months later, with the bulk of the membership and ongoing conversation having moved itself from the Boomer to FWF, Jon folded the Boomer remnants into FWF.
FP: The FWF took on its present form on the anniversary date of February 18, 2005. How has the site developed since then?
NS: The site hasn’t changed much since 2005. It’s had a rebranding (from Financial Webring to Financial Wisdom) and the sub-forums have been restructured a few times. Members, moderation staff, and ownership have changed over the years, but the central goal of the forum remains unchanged: intelligent financial discussion at no cost to readers and without someone’s agenda driving the boat.
FP: Index fund enthusiasts in the US have been able to execute portfolio allocations with low-cost no-load index mutual funds for nearly five decades. Historically, the Canadian mutual fund industry has been high-cost. In light of this situation, how have Canadian indexers implemented their portfolios?
NS: We still have no good very low cost mutual funds in Canada. Nothing comparable to Bogle’s Vanguard vision of the early ’70s has ever made it to Canada and, because of that, there is little to no competitive pressure on higher cost mutual fund providers. Vanguard and its competitors have driven index mutual fund costs to retail investors under 10bp in the US; the cheapest analogue in Canada is 40-50bp depending on asset class. The salvation of cost conscious Canadian investors has been the advent of exchange-traded funds acquired via discount brokerage accounts.
FP: The FWF and Bogleheads communities share an annual “fun” contest, known as the “Hedge Fund Contest”. Can you explain this contest for our readers?
NS: I started the contest at both FWF and Bogleheads in 2009. Between the Madoff scandal, the Lehman failure, and the sudden interest in shorting as equity markets everywhere collapsed, I thought forum members might want to have a little fun. With both forums being dominated by passive index investors, a more flamboyant alternative – even if it was only on paper – turned out to be quite popular.
FP: Thanks, Norbert.
Readers may not be aware that on February 19, 2007, in light of lax moderation and technical obsolescence of the Morningstar forums, an enterprising member of the FWF, Phoenix, created a new phpBB forum dubbed, “A port in a storm“. This was the birth of the Bogleheads® Forum.
The creation of the Bogleheads® wiki, along with an offer to Canadians to participate in it, helped spur interest in creating an independent FWF wiki, finiki.