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I have a love-hate relationship with “U.S. News & World Report” magazine, such that one week I'm ready to cancel my subscription over their political inanities, and other weeks I think my 54 cents and half hour of time well spent indeed, for some of the lengthy, topical essays they risk publishing.

This week's fun piece was by Ulrich Boser, in which he chronicles his adventures “enrolling in an online class on mystery fiction, and living to tell the tale.” It's a catchy, one-page essay, worth tracking down the next time you drop by your local library, and it makes the point that learning in the computer age is easier --though not necessarily cheaper-- than ever.

More to the point, I'd make the same pitch about online accounting classes as a means to enhance one's investing skills. My local community college, PCC, offers most of their business department courses online, and two years ago I took the beginning accounting series just to be better able to deal with financial statements. I worked my butt off, -- and, of course, snagged the top grade both semesters-- but the real value of the course was in the skills acquired. SEC filings are a lot more transparent to me now for my having taken the courses. They are still a difficult dialect, but they are no longer an incomprehensible mystery.

The fact that I could take the accounting courses online, rather than in a traditional classroom, was a huge convenience and made the experience accessible to me whose work schedule is predictable unpredictable. (I go from laid off to 12/7 and back again in a heart beat.) With the course online, it was easy to find the time to study, to complete and submit the problem sets, to take quizzes and tests. And the instructor was good about answering my questions as I hammered the text authors about points they had presented unclearly or had oversimplified compared to what I know about markets. (A typical exchange went like this: “Charlie. That's an advanced accounting point you're making, way beyond where the other students are for their not being investors, but here's a quick answer.”)

If even half of the grim things come true that the talking heads are predicting –-a decade or more of single digit returns on the broad market indexes. Cf this week's Barrons-- becoming a stock picker based on fundamentals might be a necessary strategy, and learning enough accounting to read financial statements might be a good place to begin one's re-education. It won't keep you entirely out of trouble –-because even the very experienced green-eye-shade boys got snookered by some of the recent frauds -- but it might help to reduce the damage, or enhance returns over what a purely passive approach might garner.

Economics is another subject of relevance to investors that is typically offered online, but there are very few classes I know of that teach technical analysis, which is the other necessary half of the tool chest, providing the “WHEN” to a fundamentalist's “WHAT”.


PS Be sure to check for senior citizen discounts. Half price tuition is common.
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