Investor George Morgan: Preaching the Gospel of “Wall Street West”May 23, 2023 02:51PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
The prospect of making money in the stock market always fascinated George L. Morgan, who made his initial investment ($100) at age 20. His family moved away from Omaha just before his birth, but a career opportunity brought him “back” as a banker and broker who eventually became a disciple of Berkshire Hathaway oracle Warren Buffett and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Morgan recounts the imprint the pair made from their respective Farnam Street offices in Omaha, which he dubbed “Wall Street West” in his booklet of the same name. In it, he tells “the story of how a couple guys—with a little help from their friends—built a user-friendly version of Wall Street in Omaha, Nebraska.”
Morgan, a former finance instructor at BallState University and the author of two books, a Women’s Edition column, and GROW Nebraska weekly commentary, admires Buffett’s investing acumen and bullish endorsement of index funds. And he lauds the investing-made-easy legacy of Ricketts.
Andrew Hunt, co-founder of Hiley Hunt Wealth Management in Omaha, regards Morgan as a mentor. He noted Morgan, at 81, has personally experienced the paradigm shift that put publicly traded financial investing within reach of average Americans.
“There’s been a transformation of access for retail investors,” Hunt said. “When George first started out, the only way you could buy a stock was to have a broker serve as your advocate and literally snail mail your trades on your behalf. When Ricketts, Charles Schwab, and others developed the discount brokerage model, it really disrupted that tradition, and George saw it happen in real time.
“He’s been deep in the mix from traditional brokerages charging very salty commissions and being the gatekeeper for investors to the democratization of investing, where people can get much more affordable, autonomous access to investing. He’s shown real foresight by banging the drum for low-cost investing for quite some time.”
Morgan feels a kinship with his investor idols for encouraging people to manage their own portfolios.
“Most people now have a 401k where they’re required to make investment choices,” Morgan said. “If you buy an actively managed mutual fund, the assumption is you’re going to do better than the market. But it costs a lot of money and probably will not outperform the market.”
Then there’s the high fees brokers take.
“Wall Street’s mentality is that they’re entitled to those fees because they know more about the stock market than you do,” he said.
Until the introduction of the 401k, Morgan noted, “You couldn’t get to the stock exchange without going through a licensed broker. This was the toll road Wall Street had over the American public. But now you can buy an index fund for almost nothing that will beat the market and you will end up earning more money, basically, by paying less and doing nothing. To the average individual that doesn’t make any sense, but the data is there to show it. One of the people who will pound the table for that is Warren Buffett.”
Morgan grew up in San Diego, earning a finance degree from San Diego State University and an MBA from Purdue University. He left Ball State to be vice president of investor relations at then-Commercial Federal Savings and Loan (now Bank of the West).
He applied Buffett’s principles and leveraged TD’s access while serving as vice president and financial advisor at Kirkpatrick Pettis, a storied firm in Omaha where Buffett’s father, Howard Homan Buffett, once worked. Morgan got to know Ricketts over two-martini lunches at the Ticker Tape bar. He met Buffett in 1992, though they’d corresponded since 1989. He bought fully enough into Buffett’s vision that he earned the moniker “Buffett Wannabe.”
“I’ve been a Berkshire shareholder for three decades, a Schwab-TD client for 15 [years], and I am a strong investor in index funds, primarily the S&P 500 and NASDAQ,” Morgan said.
He and his broker buddies were skeptical, even dismissive, of Ricketts when he first formed TD and predicted clients making investments on their phones.
“As TD gained traction and then was taken public, some of us began rethinking our investment model,” Morgan recalled. “Moral of the story: Wall Street is not a monolithic, static institution; it is constantly changing. There are many ways to skin the cat and, with a little homework, investors can find one that works for them.”
Morgan advocates for investors being masters of their own financial destinies.
“Part of my passion for educating the public about investing comes from my frustration with Wall Street and media acolytes proselytizing about the way the market should be operating. They see it as an analytical machine, when in reality it is an emotional organism. When you understand how the market and indexes work, you can manage your own account and achieve in a manner both effective and cost-efficient.
“My whole mission is to inform people that there is an alternative,” he concluded.
Morgan doesn’t see another homegrown Buffett or Ricketts taking up the Wall Street West torch. Even those titans are nearing the end of their runs.
“Buffett’s moved away from buying stock in companies to buying whole companies and taking them private. When Warren passes to ‘the big board room in the sky,’ Berkshire Hathaway as a business will continue as it has for the past decade,” Morgan noted. “What will be gone is the cult-like atmosphere that has grown up around Warren’s personality.”
Now retired, Ricketts has seen TD Ameritrade and Schwab merge. Morgan rated it “a very good move for the individual investor who fits the Wall Street West model of wanting to manage assets themselves.”
“The merger accomplishes two things: TD brings to the table state-of-the-art technology, and Schwab [brings] the name recognition and existing distribution system,” he said.
Morgan is writing a new book about the two Wall Streets. He hopes to host an investment podcast before he also transitions to ‘the big boardroom in the sky.’