Well, that was an exciting ride in the stock market last week, don't you think?
Like spending five days trapped in an amusement park. Call it "Six Flags Over Wall Street."It's funny. People pay money to ride the roller coaster, and the scarier the better. But when it comes to their college fund, their savings for a new home or their retirement investments, most would rather take a quiet walk in the park.
But that's not how the stock market works. It goes down as well as up. And when it goes down as it did last week - and for the past seven weeks - it reminds everyone who invests in equities that they're working without a net.
At the close of trading Friday the Dow Jones industrial average finished 42 points lower at 7,640, leaving the Dow 1,700 points, or about 18 percent, below its peak of 9,337.97 on July 17.
Last Monday it plunged 512 points but gained back 288 on Tuesday before giving back another combined 145 on Wednesday and Thursday. Can you say "volatility"?
Let's get the really scary question out of the way: How far can the stock market fall? In your heart you know the answer: all the way to the basement. Just ask your grandfather, the one who bought stocks on credit back in 1929, just before the great crash and ensuing depression.
Or ask yourself: Remember when you bought that mutual fund back in 1987, just in time for "Black Monday" on Oct. 19 when the Dow lost 508 points, which was then a whopping 22.6 percent of its value and still the largest one-day percentage decline in history?
Some investment gurus speculated then that it would take decades for Wall Street to recover from that crash. Former Utahn Howard Ruff, the man who advised everyone to buy gold and guns and head for the hills, said it was the end of the world as we knew it.
In reality, the end of the world lasted 15 months. By January 1989, the Dow had recovered all of its losses (the S&P 500 took another six months.) Everyone who hadn't panicked and sold their stocks and equity funds had regained all their "paper" losses and were once again riding the greatest bull market of the century.
This time could be different, of course. There's no law that says stocks always have to bounce back from "corrections." Maybe this time they won't come back, or perhaps it will take years. No one knows for sure, that's why they note in the small print on mutual funds prospectuses: "Past performance is no guarantee . . . "
But history is all we have to go on when we try to forecast the future; that and our faith in the U.S. economy and American business.
Besides, in all the fuss about the billions of dollars that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Ted Turn-er have lost in this summer of discontent, those who buy and hold well-known stocks and equity funds are way ahead of the game for the past 15 years.
Even for this year, many remain in the black. The Vanguard Index 500, a benchmark for large-company stock funds, was still up 2.2 percent as of Friday morning, only a little less than you'd get by leaving your money in an FDIC-guaranteed savings account for a year.
The average stock mutual fund lost 16.5 percent last month, according to Lipper Analytical Services, making it the worst month for stock funds since October 1987. For the first eight months of this year, the average stock fund fell 10.3 percent. From July 16 through August 31 the average fund has shed 22.2 percent of its value (funds always lose more than the Dow because of management costs).
With the stock market tanking, investors are suddenly rediscovering bonds as a "safer" alternative to stocks. That's fine for the short term, as a place to put money that will be needed in a few years. But becoming a "lender" of money is no substitute for being a long-term investor in equities. The market has rewarded people handsomely over the years for enduring the angst of its occasional downturns.
The math is simple. People who loaned their money to the government by buying bonds over the past 47 years, have gotten annual returns of about 6.2 percent. Those who were willing to take some risk, had annual returns of about 13.1 percent over the same period.
With the power of compounding, that means your neighbor, the faint-hearted pessimist, who loaned $1,000 to the government back in 1951 and left it alone, now has $16,898. You, on the other hand, courageous optimist that you are, put your $1,000 into American companies. Congratulations, you now have $325,643.
But it's hard to always think long-term. This summer, everyone wants to know "why now?" Why should the stock market care about Monica Lewinsky, the Russian ruble or hard times in Thailand, Japan and Korea?
For the most part, it doesn't, except that the people who make their living trading stocks - and those are the ones who have been rocking the boat this summer, not thee and me - hate uncertainty almost as much as they abhor standing out from the crowd.
Oh, they love becoming rich and famous for making the right call at the right time, like New York analyst Elaine Garzarelli did back in August 1987, when she predicted the October crash. And they love becoming rich and famous for being long-term winners, such as Peter Lynch did in the 1980s as captain of Fidelity's Magellan fund.
But they really fear becoming infamous for being wrong. Just ask the folks at the once highly regarded Brandywine Fund after they dumped their stocks in favor of "safer" investments and got left in the dust.
Most professional traders would rather follow the herd and be able to report to their shareholders, "Sure, I lost money, but so did everyone else."
On a more fundamental level, investors really have been guilty of what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan last year termed "irrational exuberance," bidding the prices of stocks way beyond where their future earnings potential could possibly support them.
As for the "Asian Contagion" and the Russian rout, it just shows that as the new millennium nears, the U.S. economy, for better or for worse, is inextricably linked with the rest of the planet's.
So, what about YOUR stock and/or equity fund investments. Well, if you've already sold, maybe you can take comfort in having some losses to write off next year's taxes. If you haven't sold, you've not lost anything; you still have the same number of shares, they're just worth less for the time being.
As you've been lectured so often, if you aren't prepared to ride out the dark times then you shouldn't be in stocks or stock funds anyway . . . yadda, yadda, yadda.
But if you have some money sitting in bonds or a money market account, stocks are now on sale. Ironically, that's the toughest time for the average investor to buy. People like to buy shoes and shirts when they're marked down, but they'd rather buy stocks at full price and then some.
The psychology is understandable. They buy when prices are high because nothing scary has happened recently and they've been listening to their brother-in-law brag about the killing he's been making in the market.
When prices fall, they sell on the fear that they'll fall farther - better to lose some than all, they figure. They say to themselves: "I'll just wait until things calm down before getting back into stocks." But by the time things calm down, the sale is over and prices are back up again.
That's the problem with trying to time the stock market - that is, get out at the top and get back in at the bottom. You have to be right twice, and anyone who can do that consistently . . . well, the National Enquirer would like to hear from you.
Maybe they'll set up a conference call between you, Jeanne Dixon, Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus. Mind if I listen in?