Image: Stock prices © Hiroshi Watanabe, The Image Bank, Getty Images

Tadas Viskanta at Abnormal Returns kicked a hornet's nest with a recent post arguing, "There has never been a better time to be an individual investor."

When I tweeted it, @aDaveNewWorld asked incredulously, "Do you really agree?"

You bet I do.

First of all, as Viskanta also pointed out, there was never a golden age when the financial markets were safe or when investors were always represented by people who behaved liked angels.

As I wrote in my 2005 introduction to Fred Schwed's classic book, "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?," the individual investor has always been "situated at the very bottom of the food chain, a speck of plankton afloat in a sea of predators."

That was true in Exchange Alley in London in 1720. It was true when A.L. Bleecker and John Pintard started auctioning stocks in their Wall Street coffee house in 1791. It was true after President Franklin Roosevelt, Ferdinand Pecora and the newborn Securities and Exchange Commission flushed out Wall Street in the 1930s. It was true in the long bull markets of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. And it is still true.

The era we invest in today, however, is as good as any that ever has been.

To see why, contrast it with the Wall Street of the 1970s.

I bought my first stock in 1976, when I was in 11th grade in rural upstate New York.

I had read a book called "How I Made $2,000,000 in the Stock Market" by a ballet dancer named Nicolas Darvas. His argument -- that surges in volume predict rises in price -- made sense to me when I was 16 or 17 and didn't know any better. (I also didn't know that Darvas' returns had been disputed.)

Following Darvas' methods as best I could, I spread out the stock tables of the Albany Times-Union on our living-room floor, closed my eyes and dropped a felt-tip marker randomly onto the pages 20 times. Then, for a month or so, I tracked the volume and the daily open, high, low and close of each of the 20 stocks on a separate sheet of graph paper.

After a few weeks, one of the stocks popped: "MacAF." After trading somewhere around $8 a share, it had suddenly gone on a tear, breaking $9 on much higher volume.

I wanted to buy 100 shares in the worst way.

My dad had an almost entirely idle brokerage account at Shearson Hammill in Hartford, Conn. A few times a decade, he bought or sold a stock. He had also wangled a monthly copy of Standard & Poor's stock guide -- just about the only objective source of information readily available to an individual investor at the time.

But the information was minimal.

The S&P Stock Guide gave me the company's full name -- MacAndrews & Forbes -- and rudimentary data about earnings, debt, assets and dividends.

The Stock Guide also showed that the conglomerate manufactured licorice, which sealed the deal as far as I was concerned.

In those days, if you wanted to learn anything else about a company, you had to spend hours in the public library -- in our case, a half-hour drive from home -- or write away for the annual report and wait weeks for it to arrive by mail.

By then, I was sure, MacAF would have quadrupled in price. I couldn't run the risk of waiting.

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