The financial meltdown may result in a permanent change in people's habits, with a focus on savings, paying off credit cards, keeping an emergency fund and diversifying investments.
The stock market bounced back, just as it has for nearly three decades. It just doesn't feel that way.
Last year's financial meltdown knocked the swagger out of Americans' views toward investing. The baby boomers who forged the Reagan bull market; survived the 1987 crash; bought Amazon.com at $2 a share and sold at $100; brushed off the collapse of the dot-com bubble and kept plowing money into their 401(k)s are reassessing what they once believed.
It's hard, after all, to keep the faith in buy-and-hold after the market crashed harder than at any time since the Great Depression. It's hard to trust your financial adviser after Bernard Madoff stole billions from his clients. Most of all, it's hard for a generation that equated personal finance with investing in stocks to accept that the rules have changed.
People are still investing. The Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 58 percent since hitting a 12-year low on March 9. And 401(k) participation rates have held steady.
But financial planners around the country say there is a sense that people are returning to basic principles that were shunted aside: Maximize your savings; limit your use of credit cards; keep a substantial emergency fund; know how much risk you can tolerate; diversify your investments; don't try to short-cut your way to wealth.
"Before the market chaos, there was a very low savings rate, inappropriate use of credit cards, too much risk in investments, excessive spending on residences," says Tom Warschauer, a finance professor at San Diego State University. "Virtually every type of financial decision was being made in a kind of fairyland atmosphere, thinking 'This will lead me to be better off' when in fact that was never the case." Warschauer, who also sees clients as a certified financial planner, predicts the new behavior could last for a decade. Other financial planners say people still believe in the market; they're just more realistic.
"People were in shock for a while. Now they're reassessing their situation and being very pragmatic, especially about their retirement," says Mark Jamison, a vice president at financial services firm Charles Schwab Corp. "They are learning that if you're willing to work a little more, spend a little less, take Social Security later, things can still work out all right."
The jolt to investors hurt so much because it hurt so many.
A generation ago, most people had no direct stake in the daily dealings on Wall Street. Fewer than 6 percent of households owned mutual funds in 1980. Four years later that number had more than doubled, thanks to the birth of the modern-day 401(k) and an economic boom that followed the severe recession of 1981-82. It nearly doubled again, to more than 24 percent, in 1988. By the turn of the century about half of all households owned them.
Wall Street can thank the baby boomers for that. They bought the idea that stocks would always go up — or if they fell, that they would rebound quickly. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 23 percent on Black Monday in October 1987 — its largest one-day percentage drop. But it took just 15 months to make that up. And a decade later the Dow had nearly quadrupled from there.
Boomers piled their money into the latest market fad — whether it was biotechnology stocks, the Internet or exchange-traded funds. They put the money for their children's college education in 529 plans and saved for retirement by investing in 401(k)s and IRAs.
Then came the crash. The Standard & Poor's 500 lost 55 percent of its value from October 2007 to last March. Even with the recent bounce back, it remains 32 percent below its peak.
And with three-plus months to go, it has been a lost decade. The S&P began 2000 at 1,469 and is now 27 percent lower. This decade trails only the 1930s as the worst in the modern investing era, and not by that much. Losses this decade have averaged 3.2 percent annually, compared with 5.3 percent a year in the '30s.
The market turmoil has lengthened careers and delayed retirements.
David Sinclair, 62, of Rio Rancho, N.M., retired in 2007 from his job as budget officer for a federal agency. He was confident his savings of more than $500,000, bolstered by a government pension, would be enough to support him and wife, Debra. He had spent 20 years playing by the rules and carefully planning for retirement.
But then the value of his portfolio fell 33 percent, and he ended up back at work at his old desk.
"One of my goals when I retired was to do a lot of traveling," he says. "With the way things were going, it became pretty apparent that I'd be lucky to take a trip every three years."
It might seem we've been here before — in this decade.
The collapse of the dot-com bubble, the terror attacks on Sept. 11 and a recession sent the stock market reeling to three years of double-digit losses from 2000-02.
Then it was over. As in the past, the consumer helped the economy roar out of recession with a surge in spending. Stocks rebounded 26 percent in 2003 to start a five-year run that lasted through 2007.
Why can't it happen like that again?
— The tech crash was different. The stability of the entire financial system was never in jeopardy, as it was with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the tech crash didn't affect all investors.
"It was sobering, but if you held (mostly) non-tech stocks you did well," says Austin Frye, a certified financial planner in Aventura, Fla. "The lesson from that was you need to spread your money around a little."
— The first baby boomers turn 65 in just two years. When that happens, the 78-million-strong group will begin the long process of removing its wealth from the market.
There is evidence that the nation's love affair with stocks is already ebbing. Just 45 percent of U.S. households owned stocks or mutual funds by 2008, down from 53 percent in 2001, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund industry trade group. That number is unlikely to increase as the biggest, richest and most invested generation starts to cash out.
— The consumer is tapped out. Even as their stock portfolios begin to recover, consumers are left with deflated home values and debts piled up during the boom years. If they spend less and save more for years, as many predict, corporate profits may be sluggish and stock gains muted.
— The U.S. economy will be wrestling for years with the effects of the Great Recession and the record amount of government debt it spawned. That could lead to higher taxes. At the same time, a share of global wealth is gradually shifting to markets in developing countries, especially China and India.
— For many, cash and bonds have become the new stocks, reflecting investors' desire for safety and security.
About two-thirds of the money flowing into the $11 trillion U.S. mutual fund industry in the second quarter went into bond funds and one-third went into stock funds, according to the research firm Strategic Insight. That's roughly the reverse of the pre-crash ratio.
Bonds have far outperformed stocks this decade. While the S&P has been taking a beating, a benchmark bond index has posted 6 percent annualized returns and an 83 percent cumulative return since the start of 2000, according to Morningstar, an investment research firm.
Typical of many financial advisers, Joy Slabaugh of EST Financial Group in Delmar, Del., says liquidity is a priority of her clients.
"People are leaving tons of their money in cash and not wanting to move it," she says. "They want it to be cash, they want it to be FDIC-insured, and that's that." And it's not just the little guy who is cooling on stocks. Some financial professionals have questioned the buy-and-hold approach to stocks, along with the strategy of putting 60 percent of a portfolio in stocks and 40 percent in bonds.
Money manager Rob Arnott says the past year has challenged some basic premises behind what he calls the "cult of equities." "There's nothing wrong with stocks if you buy them at sensible prices," says Arnott, chairman of Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, Calif. "There's something very wrong with buying stocks when they're terribly expensive, and assuming that time will heal all.
"The notion that stocks will always help us if we're patient — well, how patient do you have to be?"