Nation & World

Nearly half of Americans missed out on one of history's 'most unloved bull markets'

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York on Jan. 2, 2015. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Jin Lee.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York on Jan. 2, 2015. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Jin Lee.

Gauging the winners and losers from the financial crisis isn’t rocket science: If you were in the more than one-half of American households that owned stocks in public companies over the past decade, all you had to do was close your eyes and hold on.

As of Thursday, the S&P 500, a measure of the biggest companies in the stock market, is up 329 percent, not including dividends, since the bear market low on March 9, 2009.

The Dow Jones industrial average is up 300 percent during the same period.

And the Nasdaq Composite, loaded with tech stocks, has rocketed 530 percent since the dark days.

For those who had significant money in the stock market, “you have seen your wealth soar,” said Chris Brightman, chief investment officer of Research Affiliates, which has more than $200 billion under management.

Then there are those who didn’t.

The Americans who don’t own any or much stock missed out on one of the greatest decades of wealth creation in stock market history. The wealth disparity in the United States means that relatively few Americans have reaped the lion’s share of the stock gains.

“We have a large percentage of the population for whom the system is not working,” said billionaire investor Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates and author of a new book titled “Big Debt Crises.”

“The central banks’ policy pushed up financial assets, which is stocks, and that benefited the people with financial assets. Poor people don’t have much in the way of financial assets,” said Dalio, whose firm invests $150 billion on behalf of clients worldwide.

Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, said, “We have to spread out stock ownership, as that is one of the great sources of economic gain.”

Americans are still scared.

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According to a May 2018 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans households owning stocks has declined from as high as 65 percent in the pre-crisis year of 2007 to 55 percent now. The number is worse for Americans younger than 35, with 52 percent owning stocks in the pre-crisis years of 2001 through 2007, and only 38 percent of Americans those ages owning stocks from 2008 to 2018.

“Psychological scars from the crisis make this one of the most unloved bull markets in history,” said Jason Thomas, chief economist with the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. “You had all these naysayers, and investors were much more inclined to listen to them because of the crisis.”

The S&P bottomed out at 676.53, down 56.8 percent from its record high of 1,565 on Oct. 9, 2007. The Dow was close behind, down 53.8 percent from its all-time high until then.

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing took care of the stock market, and may have saved civilization, but large swaths of the population did not gain during these years.

If you kept your money in bank savings accounts, with paltry 1 percent interest rates, you lost to the stock market.

If you bought safe corporate bonds of super-safe U.S. Treasurys, with 2 percent interest rates, you barely kept up with inflation.

If you bought gold . . . well, gold is selling for about $1,200 an ounce. You’ve made more than 50 percent on your money compared with its 10-year low of $692.50.

The lesson is never to be learned. Markets go up. They go down. They please. They disappoint. But they are perhaps the only path for average people to accumulate wealth and create a better life.

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Even the worst-performing S&P sector, telecommunications services, produced a 74.27 percent return over the past decade. That eclipses savings rates, Treasurys and gold.

The best-performing S&P sector was consumer discretionary, fueled by its star Amazon.com (founded and led by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos). Consumer discretionary, which includes the retail sector, rose 633 percent between March 2009 and now.

One of the biggest success stories of the past decade is financial services, which rank third at a 463 percent total gain, after consumer discretionary and information technology.

Financial services, which include insurance companies and large asset managers such as BlackRock, saw their banking group become the most ironic winner of all, because they were one of the chief culprits behind the crisis.

They got most of the federal help, with bailouts and low interest rates from the Federal Reserve.

“Banks have done shockingly well,” said Mark Fitzgibbon, director of research at Sandler O’Neill and Partners, an investment banking firm. “They got hit the hardest, so they were a pretty good bad-to-better story.”

The S&P bank index of 18 major banks is up 600 percent. Bank of America, which reached a low of a few dollars, is up 882 percent and one of the best performers among major banks.

The best bank stock you could have bought, Fitzgibbon said, was Bank of the Internet, a California-based company with no branches that does all its business online. A $100 investment in BOFL shares during the crisis would be worth $3,100 today.

I am not a stock picker. I had never even heard of the Bank of the Internet a week ago. I stay mostly within the comfortable blanket of mutual funds, with a strong bias toward index funds.

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The crisis was very good to index funds. Vanguard Group saw net cash flow of $1.734 trillion from 2008 to 2017, according to one study.

Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Vanguard had $1.3 trillion in assets under management in 2010. That number now stands at $5.1 trillion under management.

“The winners were the indexers, the BlackRocks, the Vanguards, the Schwabs,” said Nancy Tengler, chief investment officer for Heartland Financial USA. “There was so much liquidity from interest rates being so low that it drove most people into buying stocks. It didn’t matter what you owned, because all stocks were going up together.”

That correlation has since decoupled, driving more investors back to trying to pick stocks.

“I always keep a ‘when-it-crashes-again fund’ in cash because there are incredible opportunities in companies that have good fundamentals, real growth, real earnings and are momentarily dislocated,” said Washington investor Raul Fernandez, who owns a big chunk of sports conglomerate Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “Unless the zombies are coming, companies with great fundamentals will bounce back. If you have the patience, guts and money, you can do well.”

The good news is that bull markets come, and bull markets go.

“Over the five-year horizon,” said Thomas of the Carlyle Group, “stock returns look lower than historical experience. But if your horizon is 10-years-plus, don’t worry. You haven’t missed anything.”

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