December 28, 2012

Eroded faith in stocks persists

The selling by ordinary investors despite a sustained bull market defies history.

By BERNARD CONDON The Associated Press

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Andrew Neitlich stands outside one of his investment homes in Venice, Fla. Neitlich once worked as a financial analyst, picking stocks for a mutual fund, but like many others he is selling his stock now. He says he prefers to invest in real estate because it’s something he can “control.”

The Associated Press

Sure enough, yields on Treasurys and many other bonds have recently hit record lows, in many cases below the inflation rate. And stock prices have risen. Yet Americans are pulling out of stocks, so deep is their mistrust of them, and perhaps of the Fed itself.

"Fed policy is trying to suck people into risky assets when they shouldn't be there," said Michael Harrington, 58, a former investment fund manager who says he is largely out of stocks. "When this policy fails, as it will, baby boomers will pay the cost in their 401(k)s."

EXCHANGE-TRADED FUNDS BENEFIT

Ordinary Americans are souring on stocks even though stock prices appear attractive relative to earnings. But history shows they can get more attractive yet.

Stocks in the S&P 500 are trading at 14 times what companies earned per share in the past 12 months. Since 1990, they have rarely traded below that level -- that is, cheaper, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. But that period is unusual. Looking back seven decades to the start of World War II, there were long stretches during which stocks traded below that.

To estimate how much investors have sold so far, the AP considered both money flowing out of mutual funds, which are nearly all held by individual investors, and money flowing into low-fee exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, which bundle securities together to mimic the performance of a market index. ETFs have attracted money from hedge funds and other institutional investors as well as from individuals.

At the request of the AP, Strategic Insight, a consulting firm, used data from investment firms overseeing ETFs to estimate how much individuals have invested in them. Based on its calculations, individuals accounted for 40 percent to 50 percent of money going to U.S. stock ETFs in recent years.

If you assume 50 percent, individual investors have put $194 billion into U.S. stock ETFs since April 2007.

ANTI-STOCKS MOOD SHORT-LIVED?

The good news is that a chastened stock market doesn't necessarily mean a flat stock market.

Bill Gross, the co-head of bond investment firm Pimco, has probably done more than anyone to popularize the notion that stocks will prove disappointing in the coming years. But he says what is dying is not stocks, but the "cult" of stocks. In a recent letter to investors, he suggested stocks might return 4 percent or so each year, about half the long-term level but still ahead of inflation.

Of course, those counting the small investor out could be wrong.

Three years after that BusinessWeek story on the "death of equities" ran, in 1982, one of the greatest multi-year stock climbs in history began as the little guys shed their fear and started buying. And so they will surely do again, the bulls argue, and stock prices will really rocket.

Neitlich, the executive coach, has his doubts.

Instead of using extra cash to buy stocks, he is buying houses near his home in Sarasota, Fla., and renting them. He said he prefers real estate because it's local and is something he can "control." He said stocks make up 12 percent of his $800,000 investment portfolio, down from nearly 100 percent a few years ago.

After the dot-com crash, it seemed as if "things would turn around. Now, I don't know," Neitlich said. "The risks are bigger than before."

 

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