Not every investor has been wounded by the stock market crash. Many gold mutual funds have done well. Fixed-income funds, especially those invested in U.S. government securities, rose an average of 2.3 percent in the week of the market's decline, according to Lipper Analytical Services. Long-term investors who got into the market several years ago still are ahead -- although not as rich as they were in August.
Here is a rundown of the winners and losers:
If you invested primarily for income -- in bond funds and high-dividend stocks -- you can survive without a major adjustment in your standard of living. Your principal has declined, but your interest and dividend checks will keep coming in. So retirees and others who depend on their capital for income should be in pretty good shape.
High-dividend stocks, such as utilities, give you income plus a stake in long-term growth. That's useful for younger retirees, as well as for those with higher incomes who can afford some market risks. Those of you who are just scraping by would want to have more money in bonds, to avoid the chance of dividend cuts in the next recession.
If you invested primarily for long-term growth, you're not necessarily in trouble, as long as you're in blue chip stocks and -- most importantly -- have been in this market for a while. Four days after the crash, the Dow Jones industrial average stood at 1950, just about where it was 10 months ago and still up 151 percent from the 1982 market bottom.
Most of the secondary stocks, however, haven't been doing as well. The money has been flowing to quality companies, and will likely stay that way. Many professional investors had been expecting a boom in the secondary stocks as a sign that the bull market was coming to an end. Unhappily for them, this bull managed to expire without it.
If you were speculating, you may be bleeding.
Your first reaction might be, "I don't speculate." But many investors have been taking more risks than they realized.
You're hurt if you put all your savings into stocks, without setting anything aside in a bank or a money fund to be kept permanently safe. Even young people should go into stocks only after they have a cash cushion. The compounding interest of CDs or zero-coupon bonds works best for the young, because they have so many years to let it build.
You're hurt if you exposed too many other parts of your financial life to market risk. Nowadays, your insurance might be linked to stocks, through variable-life policies. So might your pension plan, through profit-sharing investments or employe stock ownership plans. So might your bank savings, through the new stock-linked certificates of deposit. These are supposed to be the safe parts of your portfolio. You should decouple them from the stock market.
You're hurt if you borrowed against your stocks to make other investments. Brokers have been calling in those loans. Some buyers had to sell out at big losses.
You're hurt if you invested with money that you had to have within a short period of time. Over very long periods, stocks outperform other investments. But over shorter periods, you can get killed.
For example, markets can fall for two years straight, as they did in 1973-74. Just as bad, they can rise and fall and rise again to the same level, without ever moving ahead -- which pretty much defined the unrewarding life of the long-term investor between 1965 and 1983.
For this reason, it's nuts to bet your child's tuition money on stocks if he or she will enter college within three or four years or so. Maybe you'll win, but what happens to college if you lose?
Similarly, if you'll be retiring within three or four years, it's nuts to bet money that you'll need at that time for income investments. And it should be unthinkable to bet money you'll need to start a business or buy a house.
"I have a friend who just sold his New York co-op and was putting the proceeds into a house," a money manager told me in one of several disaster stories I heard last week. "In the couple of weeks before the house closed, he put the money into the market. Now he can't buy the house and has no place to go."