Wednesday, December 24, 2008

One month doth a year make

December 22, 2008
Wall Street Journal

One of the hallmarks of the long market downturns in the 1930s and the 1970s has returned: Rank-and-file investors are losing faith in stocks.

Today's investors are surveying a stock-market collapse and a wave of Wall Street failures and scandals. Many have headed for the exits: Investors pulled a record $72 billion from stock funds overall in October alone, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund trade group

Investors' discomfort with stocks has been growing for years, since just after the 2000 selloff of dotcom shares. From 2002 through 2005, investors put an average of $62 billion a year into U.S. stock mutual funds, less than half the annual level of the previous decade. Since 2006, investors have been pulling money out of U.S. stock funds at a rate of about $40 billion a year.

The sustained troubles of the 1930s exposed scandals in speculative instruments. So-called investment trusts used investor money and borrowed funds to buy high-flying securities, sometimes buying stock in one another. Of the 1,183 investment trusts and other funds that existed from 1927 through 1936, more than half had failed by 1937, a government study showed.

The Dow didn't return to its 1929 high until 1954. New York University financial historian Richard Sylla recalls that even in the 1950s, some people were so spooked by the Depression that they were storing money in jars in the basement.

The stock recovery of the 1940s and 1950s became a speculative boom in the 1960s, marked by the so-called Nifty Fifty stocks that brokers said would rise for years. They didn't.

In 1966, the Dow flirted with the 1000 level, then shed 25%. That bull-and-bear pattern would repeat for 16 years amid inflation and soaring oil prices. Investor confidence was hammered again.

That confidence has been shaken by two bad bear markets in less than a decade. Between 2000 and 2002, the Dow fell 38% and the Nasdaq Composite Index shed 78%. This year's market collapse knocked 47% off the Dow in just over 12 months, returning stocks to 1997 levels. As of Friday, the Dow still was 39% off its 2007 record.

In 2001, people's hopes for stocks were extremely high. Only 5% of those surveyed expected average annual stock returns in the coming decade to be 5% or less, according to University of Oregon Prof. Paul Slovic, whose company, Decision Research, conducts the surveys. Today, nearly one-third of those surveyed expect such stock weakness, reflecting the decline in investor optimism.

But there is a surprising amount of optimism left. More than half of the small investors surveyed still expect annual gains of 10% or more over the next decade -- at, or above, historical averages.

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