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Many Small Investors Have Sat Out Rally

Kevin O'Donnell of Banc of America Securities at the close of trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow closed above 10,000 on Wednesday.
Kevin O'Donnell of Banc of America Securities at the close of trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow closed above 10,000 on Wednesday. (By Travis Fox -- The Washington Post)
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By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

NEW YORK, Oct. 14 -- Wall Street may be cheering the rally in the U.S. stock market, but many individual investors watched the Dow Jones industrial average soar past the 10,000 mark Wednesday on the sidelines.

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Still shell-shocked from the ravaging of their retirement accounts during the financial crisis, mom-and-pop investors remained cautious as the Dow soared 53 percent from its March 9 low to Wednesday's closing price of 10,015.86.

The likely drivers of the rally are instead institutional investors such as large pension funds and hedge funds, market analysts said. And in interviews over the past two weeks, fund managers and financial advisers said most small investors have only recently begun to talk about getting more aggressive with their beaten-down portfolios.

"For the first six months of the year, people just had their heads down. I don't know how many people told me they haven't looked at their statements," said Dan Lash, a financial planner in Vienna.

It was only last month, when the Dow had already recovered more than 40 percent of its losses, that Charlotte and Larry Vass of La Plata, Md., decided they were ready to consider taking a less conservative stance. The Vasses had been mostly invested in stocks two years ago but began pulling out last fall as markets were pummeled after the collapse of the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers. Over the past year, the Vasses also moved deeper into bonds, said Charlotte, who is in her late 50s.

"Back then, we were in shock," she added.

While the couple plan to keep their portfolio more balanced, Charlotte and her husband, a dentist, have asked their financial planner to be a little more aggressive. They have begun adding money -- slowly -- to stock index funds, she said.

"If your 401(k) turns into a 201(k), you can't get it back in a couple of years," said Charlotte, adding that retirement, which the couple thought might come in a few years, has been pushed further down the road.

Investors in mutual funds, which are among the most common ways for individuals to participate in the stock market, pulled more than $205 billion out of stock funds between September 2008, when equities plunged, to the end of March, when they began their rally, according to data from the Investment Company Institute. During the same period, small investors sought the safety of cash, pouring $357 billion into money-market funds.

In contrast, only $56 billion returned to stock funds between April and the end of August, the most recent date for which data are available. Money-market-fund levels remained high.

"This market rise certainly is not being driven by mutual fund investors," said Brian Reid, the ICI's chief economist. "Mutual fund flows are not causing this run-up, and I would think that probably carries over for retail investors in general."

In fact, there's evidence that small investors in the past few months have once again been moving money out of U.S. stocks. On a weekly basis, small investors took out $2 billion to $4 billion more than they put into funds focusing primarily on domestic stocks from July to September, Reid said.


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