News Column

Despite Stocks' Success, Many Small Investors Stay away

Feb. 4, 2013

Jessica Hall

The Dow Jones industrial average closed over 14,000 on Friday, the highest point since 2007, but its rise isn't being driven by individual investors, who still lack confidence in the stock market and remain nervous about the nation's economy.

The surging stock market is being driven largely by institutional investors.

"You would think that investors today would be very, very happy and that they'd be spending money. I don't see that," said Joel Gold, chairman of the accounting and finance department at the University of Southern Maine and a certified financial planner with the Gold Co. "They're still worried. They're worried about their jobs. They're worried about retirement."

He said, "Even though the market has gone up terrifically, investor feelings are still cautious."

The Dow Jones industrial average, a benchmark for the stock market as a whole, hit a high of 14,019.78 on Friday, crossing the 14,000 threshold for the first time since before the Great Recession

It closed at 14,009.79, up 1.08 percent for the day. Before Friday, the Dow had closed above 14,000 just nine times. The all-time closing high is 14,164.53, hit in October 2007.

Susan Winthrop of South Portland said the Dow's surpassing 14,000 means little to her.

"I don't follow the market," she said. "It's too upsetting to see the swings."

Sam Miles, an engineer from Freeport, said he takes a hands-off approach. He puts money into his 401(k) retirement plan, but finds it too stressful to watch the daily gains and losses.

"I put money in my 401(k) plan and leave it there and don't think about it," he said.

He said he's disciplined about putting money aside from every paycheck, but fears he may never be able to retire.

"I'm not counting on Social Security," Miles said. "I'm not counting on retiring."

He isn't alone. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found in a study last year that Americans' confidence in their ability to retire comfortably is historically low. Just 14 percent are "very confident" that they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, the institute found.

Many workers reported having little to no savings and investments. Sixty percent of workers reported that the total value of their household's savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found.

Tom McNeil, a contractor from South Portland, said he expects that he will have to keep working well into his retirement years.

"I'm going to be working until the day I die," he said, so "14,000 doesn't matter to me."

When the market hit bottom in 2008, many individual investors left the market and retreated to the safety of cash or bond funds. Investors are now starting to move cautiously back into stocks, financial planners said.

The Senior Center at Lower Village, a retirement community in Kennebunk, had an investing club for its residents, but the club disbanded after the market tanked with the economy's collapse in 2008.

Recently, an informal group at the Senior Center has started meeting over coffee with Caleb Allen, a financial adviser with Edward Jones, to discuss issues ranging from stock market history to more current events like the "fiscal cliff."

The seniors tend to be very disciplined, long-term investors, Allen said.

"Their philosophy doesn't change with the market fluctuations," Allen said "Ninety percent of their focus is in blue chip stocks. They've held on to them for 15 to 20 years. They look for quality."

In the first three weeks of January, $14.9 billion went into equity mutual funds -- the biggest three-week increase since January 2001, according to Lipper, a division of Thomson Reuters. But that was just a fraction of the net reduction of $416 billion in mutual fund investments from 2008 to the start of 2013.

Brian Clement, a senior vice president with RBC Wealth Management in Portland, said individual investors often make emotional decisions, rather than sticking to long-term financial plans.

"Institutions wait," he said. "Institutions are much less emotional investors than individuals."

Now, he said, "Investors who left the market in 2008 are starting to come back."

He said, "Individual investors bailed" when stock prices were down. "Some clients were buying in at the bottom, but that was rare."

Advisers say individual investors can't let emotions get in the way, especially with a volatile market or news about hot stocks "We try to tell people not to let short-term current events affect long-term goals," said Dan Dougherty, a financial adviser with Edward Jones in Portland.

"You have to have a rational approach to investing and look at what your experience has been. Ask yourself, 'Did I lose sleep at night when the market was bad and was I euphoric when it was doing great?' Emotion -- that's not a good way to determine your investment moves."

Investors have been encouraged by several recent developments, such as Congress averting the fiscal cliff, an easing of Europe's financial crisis and a recovery in the U.S. housing market, Clement said.

"Three dark clouds have gotten less dark. Things have lightened a bit. But we're a long way from irrational exuberance. We've just gotten back to the October 2007 levels," Clement said. "When markets fall, people panic and get out and say, 'Never again.' They sit on the sidelines in cash. As the pain and suffering becomes a more distant memory, they begin to look at options again."

While some investors are still skittish about investing in stocks, advisers say some stock exposure is necessary for people to see any growth in their portfolio, given the historically low interest rates on savings and money market accounts.

Financial planners said it's difficult to give general investing advice because so much depends on a person's savings, debt, age, years until retirement and ability to withstand risk.

Still, some advice rings true for everyone: diversify your holdings, buy quality and talk to a financial adviser, they said.

"People need to be rational about what they are doing. Don't allow your emotions to drive your actions," said Susan Veligor, a principal with Cornerstone Financial Planning in Portland. "Have a plan in place and stick with that."



Source: (c)2013 Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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