Remembering the lessons of the last market bubble

By Allan Sloan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Get out your calendars, folks. It's time to celebrate -- or perhaps mourn -- the 10th anniversary of one of the epic financial events of our time: the peak of the great stock market bubble in March 2000. That's the month when the Nasdaq composite index, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index and the Wilshire 5000 all reached new highs, then headed south, big time. (The Dow Jones industrial average peaked that January, but who cares? It's just a crummy 30 stocks.)

No, this isn't yet another article about the "decade from hell" and the $3.6 trillion of stock market value that Wilshire Associates calculates has vanished since the Wilshire 5000 peaked on March 24, 2000. (The S&P peaked the same day, two weeks after the Nasdaq reached its highest value.)

Rather, I want to show you how, even though popular perceptions of Wall Street and markets and the government's role have changed, the institutions involved haven't, and probably never will. As an investor -- or just a plain old citizen -- you'd do well to remember that.

Here's the deal. For a generation -- August 1982 through March 2000 -- U.S. stocks had their greatest run ever. The S&P 500 returned almost 20 percent a year, compounded, including reinvested dividends. You doubled your money in less than four years, quadrupled it in a little more than seven. It's the kind of thing people could get used to, and over a generation, many did. Rising stocks helped pay for retirement, college tuition, and balancing state and federal budgets. We didn't save, but who cared? The market was making us rich.

That all came to a screeching halt a decade ago, even though the S&P 500 and Wilshire 5000 briefly set new highs in 2007 before tanking again. Now, with the Wilshire and the S&P 500 down 21 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from their 2000 highs (as of Monday's market close) and the tech-stock-laden (as we used to say) Nasdaq down a sickening 55 percent, America's love affair with stocks has long since turned to hate. People also hate Wall Street, for obvious and understandable reasons. During the bull market, we all got a piece of the Street's action. But now, with millions of people still hammered by the Great Recession, the Street is pigging out, barely bothering to pay even lip service to the U.S. taxpayers who saved it by rescuing the world financial system.

But you should neither love the Street, as people did a decade ago, nor hate it, as many do now. Just understand that Wall Street's goal is to make money for itself, not to help you or the country or the world.

Similarly, the Federal Reserve -- beloved during Alan Greenspan's glory days and demonized now -- remains what it has been since it was founded in 1913: guardian of the financial system. This has come to mean keeping giant institutions alive. That's what the Fed did two years ago, when we came close to a worldwide financial meltdown that would have cost millions of jobs. And that's what it will do again, if another meltdown looms.

In hindsight, the Fed and the Treasury were way too nice to big Wall Street firms. But there was a panic going on, and the government did the best it could. It wasn't great, by any means, but better than having the financial world collapse.

Regardless of how much "financial reform" is passed in Washington, the Street will find ways to profit at your expense. That's what it does. To counter, you have to watch out for yourself, and remember that there's no such thing as low-risk, high-return investments (can you spell Madoff?) or free lunches. Don't get too greedy, as many people did late in the bull market because stocks had done so well for so long.

The market wasn't benign during the bull market years, and it's not malignant now. It's just the market. It takes care of itself. And you'd better take care of yourself by living below your means, doing your homework, and being careful and skeptical. That, my friends, is the true lesson to take from this anniversary.

Allan Sloan is Fortune magazine's senior editor at large.

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