Six months down, six to go and so far this year money-market funds are giving Washington investors about as good a return as they are getting in the stock market.
So personal portfolios may seem ripe for a mid-course correction. But four of the mid-Atlantic region's top market mavens caution that this is not a time to make bold moves.
"No investors want to hear this, but sometimes the name of the game is 'Don't Lose Money,' " said Steven East, chief economist at investment banker Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. in Arlington.
"There are not a lot of good alternatives," said Richard E. Cripps, chief market strategist for Baltimore's Legg Mason Inc., the region's biggest investment firm.
"Conservative" is the word used by Randall R. Eley, chief executive of the mutual fund firm Edgar Lomax Co. in Springfield.
And Michael Farr of District investment advisers Farr, Miller & Washington talks about "great old safe standbys."
These days, when you talk to these professionals, hot stocks and hyper returns don't come up. But they all argue that investors can, with care, beat the return of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, the traditional benchmark for the overall stock market.
The S&P is about as flat as you can get -- up by less than one-tenth of 1 percent this year, although that is better than the more volatile Dow Jones industrial average, off 2.3 percent, and the Nasdaq Stock Market composite index, which has lost 2.8 percent.
Reinvesting dividends, the S&P so far this year has produced a total return of 0.9 percent. That's an annual rate of about 1.8 percent, barely better than the 1.3 percent that money markets are paying.
As East puts it, "You could have gotten returns somewhere around there in a money-market fund and saved yourself all the ulcers."
Many investment advisers recommend that small investors put their money in S&P 500 index funds, which simply buy all the stocks in the index. But in a market like this, "index kinds of products generally underperform,'' said Cripps of Legg Mason. Since Legg Mason forecast the S&P would be flat for the year, buying index funds amounts to throwing in the towel.
To Cripps, this year looks a lot like 1992, 1993 and 1994, when the S&P produced returns in the low single digits. One way investors beat those returns then, he said, was by holding broad portfolios.
In fact, a broad assortment of big stocks, little stocks and bonds is recommended by all four investment pros now.
They differ widely, however, on how much of an investor's portfolio ought to be in bonds. Though generally regarded as less risky than stocks, and a good investment to be in when the outlook is uncertain, bonds decline when interest rates go up. And everyone is forecasting higher interest rates in the year ahead, including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the man who makes decisions on interest rates.
To minimize the risk of declining bond prices, the four investment advisers suggest buying short-term bonds, whose prices would fall less than bonds with longer maturities.
Eley, who manages the Edgar Lomax Value Fund and is a frequent guest on television investment shows, said the Federal Reserve's recent decision to raise interest rates was a signal for investors to cut back their stock holdings.
Investors should "make sure that your asset allocation is conservative, with the minimum allocation to stocks," he said. People who might ordinarily split their assets evenly between stocks and bonds should pull back to 40 percent stocks, 60 percent bonds, he recommends.
He advises buying bonds that mature within five years because, when rates go up, short-term bonds decline in value less than long-term bonds. Five-year bonds are yielding about 4 percent these days, and "that's not a bad safe return over the next five years," Eley said.
East of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey urges buying "very short-term bonds" but would put much less money in bonds than stocks because of the risk of higher rates. "I am bearish on bonds," he said, predicting higher inflation will produce a sharp rise in interest rates. He expects the 10-year Treasury bond, which now yields about 4.5 percent, to hit 5.25 percent. (Bond yields rise as prices decline.) Investors who want bonds, he suggested, should buy TIPS -- Treasury Inflation Protected Securities -- whose interest rate rises with inflation.
Farr of Farr, Miller & Washington is also recommending short-term bonds. As for stocks, he likes a heavy mix of blue-chips. That is because, he argues, the stock market doesn't look so bad if you look further back and further ahead. Though it didn't go anywhere in the first six months of this year, the S&P index has produced a return of 11 percent over the past 12 months. With stock prices lower today, there are more bargains to be found in stocks that will produce decent returns over the long term, Farr said. "My advice is to see this for the opportunity that it is," he said.
Farr likes stocks that pay good dividends and are selling at lower prices in relation to their earnings than they used to -- the same "value investing" strategy used by Eley at the Edgar Lomax fund and recommended by Cripps.
"What we look for," Cripps said, "is extremes in terms of relative valuation." Stocks that today are trading at higher or lower price-to-earnings ratios than they did in previous years give a new meaning to the "reversion to the mean" theory. When the market was booming, that theory predicted that stocks with unusually high P/E ratios would fall back to traditional levels. With the market down, it means undervalued stocks are likely, at some point, to rise to the valuations that prevailed in the past.
East summarized the approach more simply: "If someone is bullish on the stock market and the economy, try to buy something that looks cheap. For people concerned about the state of the world today, with terrorism and big budget deficits, you might look at gold."
Wall Street's worries about the world come up in conversations with all four market mavens. From Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel to the repeated warnings of possible terrorist attacks at home, violence gets factored into investors' thinking. There is uncertainty about economic growth, which has yet to reach the pace investors would like to see.
The presidential election also hangs over the market. It's not so much that investors are betting on whether Bush or Kerry would be better for the market, but that they don't want to bet at all until they know who's going to be in charge of economic policy for the next four years.