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2000 shock still makes investors gun shy

The Baltimore Sun

There was a time when investors popped champagne corks to celebrate record-breaking levels in the stock market.

But that was in the late '90s, before the technology bubble exploded in March 2000, drenching portfolios with red ink and scaring people into the real estate market.

Although the Standard & Poor's 500 index climbed to a record two weeks ago, individual investors barely noticed. And as stocks receded below those highs last week, analysts were attributing that to nervous professionals - like hedge-fund managers - rather than regular folks with IRAs and 401(k)s.

The exuberance that existed at the end of the '90s has not returned despite recent record-breaking levels in virtually every index - from the large stocks of the U.S. Standard & Poor's 500, to the small stocks of the Russell 2000 and the foreign stocks.

"Although my neighbors all know I'm in the investment business, none of them want to talk about stocks," said James Floyd, an analyst at Leuthold Group LLC. "They only want to talk about their homes."

His observation isn't simply anecdotal. Analysts track investor sentiment by watching how much money people put into mutual funds, and there has been little enthusiasm for the large stocks that make up the Standard & Poor's 500 since those stocks plummeted 49 percent starting in March 2000.

The reaction has not been surprising.

Historically, investors burned by a meltdown in certain investments have been standoffish for years.

In the early 1970s, for example, overly enthusiastic investors drove large stocks - known as the Nifty 50 - to exorbitant prices, and when they crashed under the weight of too much speculation, investors panicked, ran for the exits and cowered for years.

According to the Leuthold Group, fearful mutual fund investors pulled money out of mutual funds for 12 years.

Since the 2000 shock, the reaction has been milder. Investors pulled money out of funds that invest in large stocks last year, but this year they have put $2.9 billion into the funds, the Leuthold Group said.

Since the money has flowed primarily into exchange-traded funds - which tend to be more popular among professionals than do-it-yourselfers - analysts think the average person is still on the sidelines.

That could be good for cautious investors in the near term if the U.S. stock market drops in response to inflation fears and rising interest rate concerns, as some analysts were predicting last week.

Still, investors who have shunned the funds that hurt them in 2000 might not be as insulated as they might think.

Like past shocks in the market, investors since 2000 have stayed clear of funds that stung them, but turned to something new.

The Leuthold Group noted that investors have poured record levels into funds that invest in foreign companies - $103 billion last year and another $80 billion this year.

It's been a sensible strategy and a lucrative one, noted Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. strategist Liz Ann Sonders. Emerging markets - which include areas of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America - are on a growth spurt, and the stocks, as a group, are up about 96 percent for the past two years.

More mature economies - or developed countries that make up the Morgan Stanley Capital International EAFE index - have given investors a 64 percent return for the same period.


Gail MarksJarvis writes for Your Money.

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