The 'Free Ride Era' Is Over

By: Tom Madell | Tue, May 6, 2003
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It's too bad but the title of this article is true.

Back in the mid to late 1990s, almost any stock-related investment you picked, it seemed, would lead you to easy success. We all know that era is now gone.

But it's not just the stock market's free ride that's past history. Back at the end of 1999, you could get close to a 6% compound yield without taking any risk in a good money market fund. Today it's more like 1%. What this means is that if you've moved some money out of stocks into cash, your real return after inflation (and possibly taxes) is decidedly less than 0%.

Of course, most people hold on to the hope that in the years ahead, when many of them hope to retire, stocks will again return to their winning ways. After all, stocks have averaged returns of about 10% over the last 100 years or so, right? So it seems this would be well worth continuing the ride assuming we get the payoff in the end. But will we?

If you, like the majority, cling to this optimistic view, or just if you wish to see an interesting projection of future possibilities, I strongly urge you take a look at this free article from the New York Times. The gist of this article, based on research by experts at 3 top universities, states that due to cashing in of stocks by retiring baby boomers during the next 15 years, there will be more sellers than buyers of stocks, causing prices to continue to head down.

While obviously, population trends are not the only determinant of stock prices, we can find other reasons for caution in assuming that stocks will always eventually reward investors, an assumption that therefore relieves us from having to think (or worry) much about our investments. The main one is probably this: The world is far too unpredictable a place to simply have confidence in any one anticipated-in-advance outcome.

Remember all the people who until recently thought they had job security, pension guarantees, and who thought that only people in foreign countries, certainly not here on US soil, had to worry about major loss of life as a result of foreign hostilities? And when many people thought they could believe what widely quoted financial industry experts said about the prospects for stock investments (never mind that they had and still do have a financial and career interest in the very investments they were touting)? And perhaps to show the point even further: Surveys have shown that a large percentage of people no longer feel that they can even count on Social Security being there in its present form when it's time for them to collect.

Couple this unpredictability with the proven fact that most people are poor market "timers" and it becomes even more reasonable to conclude that many of them will never achieve the promised 10% annual returns: We all, even the pros, tend to make the majority of our purchases, exchanges, and cash outs at just the wrong times.

Research shows that the vast majority of mutual fund investors consistently achieve results far poorer than market averages. For example, from January 1984 through December 2000, the average yearly return for the S&P 500 Index was 16.3% a year while the same results for stock fund investors was a scant 5.3% a year! - for an interesting perspective on this which includes the role of psychology in investing, you may want to read the following article.

All this leads me to conclude that investors are still far too blaise about their investments. Free rides are what kids get from their parents at amusement parks; for everyone else, we all need as much information and advice from well-read, independent-thinking individuals as we can get if we hope to assuredly get from point A to point B.


Tom Madell

Author: Tom Madell

Tom Madell, Ph.D.
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