The fabulous stock market of recent years spawned a lot of investment clubs. Some 30,000 are currently listed with the National Association of Investors Corp. (NAIC), compared with 7,200 in 1992.

These clubs can be wonderful places to learn about stocks and mutual fund investing. But don't believe the propaganda that just-plain-folks are regularly beating the market. They're not.

That myth has two origins. First, one club's superior investment record, publicized in "The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide."

That best-selling book told how 15 women, ranging in age from 50 to 90, taught themselves how to pick winning stocks. If they can do it, why not you? (The Ladies are no longer publishing their investment record.)

Second, the NAIC itself which loves to make it sound as if everyone's a Wall Street genius. According to its glowing reports, 43 percent of its registered investment clubs equaled or beat the stock market averages last year.

But there's a teeny-tiny problem with that statistic. Only about 7 percent of the investment clubs report their results to NAIC. Those that do are competing for the title of "club of the year" (as the Beardstown Ladies were).

Obviously, clubs with mediocre results won't bother to report. A better reading of NAIC's "statistic" is that, of the sliver of superior clubs in any year, less than half beat the market.

Furthermore, it would be unusual for the same clubs to be in that top sliver year after year. Beating the market is mostly luck.

This is not a beef against investment clubs. They're useful, interesting, educational and fun.

Clubs are helping people especially women learn to trust themselves with financial decisions. Nearly 42 percent of the NAIC-registered clubs are entirely female. Most of the rest are co-ed.

I like investment clubs, which is why I'm so bothered about this fake claim that amateurs regularly beat the pros. You might feel like a failure if your club doesn't do as well.

But even professional money managers find it hard to beat the market over the long run. That's not even a sensible goal. You're a success if the club teaches you what investing is all about.

If you're thinking about starting a club, read "The Beardstown Ladies" (Hyperion paperback, $10.95). Then gather some friends, and friends of your friends, to talk about it.

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