Lots of folks are wondering what happened to the Main Street-mom-and-pop retail investors. They seem to have taken their ball and gone home. I don’t blame them for feeling put upon, but it might be instructive to figure out why. Perhaps it could even help us determine what this means for risk capital.
We see evidence of this all over the place: The incredibly light volume of stock trading; the abysmal television ratings of CNBC; the closing of investing magazines such as Smart Money, whose final print issue is on newsstands as it transitions to a digital format; the dearth of stock chatter at cocktail parties. Why, it is almost as if America has fallen out of love with equities.
Given the events of the past decade and a half, this should come as no surprise. Average investors have seen not one but two equity collapses (2000 and 2008). They got caught in the real estate boom and bust. Accredited investors (i.e., the wealthier ones) also discovered that venture capital and private equity were no sure thing either. The Facebook IPO may have been the last straw.
What has driven the typical investor away from equities?
The short answer is that there is no single answer. It is complex, not reducible to single variable analysis. This annoys pundits who thrive on dumbing down complex and nuanced issues to easily digestible sound bites. Television is not particularly good at subtlety, hence the overwhelming tendency for shout-fests and silly bull/bear debates.
The factors that have been weighing on people-formerly-known-as-stock-investors are many. Consider the top 10 reasons investors are unenthused about the stock market:
1 Secular cycle: As we have discussed before, there are long-term cycles of alternating bull and bear markets. The current bear market that began in March 2000 has provided lots of ups and downs — but no lasting gains. Markets are effectively unchanged since 1999 (the Nasdaq is off only 40 percent from its 2000 peak).
The way secular bear markets end is with investors ignoring stocks, enormous P/E multiple compression and bargains galore. Bond king Bill Gross and his Death of the Cult of Equities is a good sign we are getting closer to the final denouement.
2 Psychology: Investors are scarred and scared. They have been scarred by the 57 percent crash in the major indexes from the 2007 peak to the 2009 bottom. They are scared to get back into equities because that is their most recent experience, and it has affected them deeply. While this psychological shift from love to hate to indifference is a necessary part of working toward the end of a secular bear, it is no fun for them — or anyone who trades or invests for a living.
3 Risk on/risk off: Let’s be brutally honest — the fundamentals have been utterly trumped by unprecedented central bank intervention. While this may be helping the wounded bank sector, it is not doing much for long-term investors in fixed income or equities. The Fed’s dual mandate of maximum employment and stable prices seems to have a newer unspoken goal: Driving risk asset prices higher.