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Sunday, August 22, 2010

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Renewed economic uncertainty is testing Americans’ generation-long love affair with the stock market.




Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group. Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.



If that pace continues, more money will be pulled out of these mutual funds in 2010 than in any year since the 1980s, with the exception of 2008, when the global financial crisis peaked.



Small investors are “losing their appetite for risk,” a Credit Suisse analyst, Doug Cliggott, said in a report to investors on Friday.



One of the phenomena of the last several decades has been the rise of the individual investor. As Americans have become more responsible for their own retirement, they have poured money into stocks with such faith that half of the country’s households now own shares directly or through mutual funds, which are by far the most popular way Americans invest in stocks. So the turnabout is striking.



So is the timing. After past recessions, ordinary investors have typically regained their enthusiasm for stocks, hoping to profit as the economy recovered. This time, even as corporate earnings have improved, Americans have become more guarded with their investments.

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“At this stage in the economic cycle, $10 to $20 billion would normally be flowing into domestic equity funds” rather than the billions that are flowing out, said Brian K. Reid, chief economist of the investment institute. He added, “This is very unusualThe notion that stocks tend to be safe and profitable investments over time seems to have been dented in much the same way that a decline in home values and in job stability the last few years has altered Americans’ sense of financial security.




It may take many years before it is clear whether this becomes a long-term shift in psychology. After technology and dot-com shares crashed in the early 2000s, for example, investors were quick to re-enter the stock market. Yet bigger economic calamities like the Great Depression affected people’s attitudes toward money for decades.



For now, though, mixed economic data is presenting a picture of an economy that is recovering feebly from recession.



“For a lot of ordinary people, the economic recovery does not feel real,” said Loren Fox, a senior analyst at Strategic Insight, a New York research and data firm. “People are not going to rush toward the stock market on a sustained basis until they feel more confident of employment growth and the sustainability of the economic recovery.”



One investor who has restructured his portfolio is Gary Olsen, 51, from Dallas. Over the past four years, he has adjusted the proportion of his investments from 65 percent equities and 35 percent bonds so that the $1.1 million he has invested is now evenly balanced.



He had worked as a portfolio liquidity manager for the local Federal Home Loan Bank and retired four years ago.



“Like everyone, I lost” during the recent market declines, he said. “I needed to have a more conservative allocation.”



To be sure, a lot of money is still flowing into the stock market from small investors, pension funds and other big institutional investors. But ordinary investors are reallocating their 401(k) retirement plans, according to Hewitt Associates, a consulting firm that tracks pension plans
NYTIMES.com
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