After the stock market closed on Friday, my portfolio was at an all-time high. That was likely also the case for a lot of investors living in the United States who are similar to me: earning income, investing in the stock market with a buy-and-hold strategy for the future, and leaving money invested during the stickier economic times.
Continuing to invest in the stock market throughout the recent recession was an essential part of long-term success with investing. Not all investors had this luxury, as the recession hit hard. Many workers lost their job and their income at the same time investing in the stock market was crucial for eventually receiving those promised long-term average returns.
According to a new survey, more than half of Americans don’t own stocks or stock-based investments like mutual funds.
But should this be surprising? Should stock owners look at those who do not own stocks with judgment or from a perspective of superiority? Is the lack of ubiquitous investing a result of ineffective financial education?
CNN calls the data reflective of an “alarming trend for America’s financial future” and for some reason compares the number of stock market investors with the number of daily coffee drinkers. After all, if Americans simply invested in stocks with the money spent on daily coffee drinks, the country would supposedly be wealthier — and sleepier.
Despite the proliferation of the 401(k) retirement plan as a replacement for employer pensions and the increasing tendency for employers to automatically enroll new employees in 401(k) plans, stock market investing still hasn’t penetrated the psyche of a majority of those living and working in the United States.
Most auto-enrollment settings will default to a money market index, probably because the employer doesn’t want the liability of choosing a riskier investment without the required education and an opt-in confirmation for investing in the stock market. There is also a view that the 401(k) plan was flawed from the start, giving a huge cash cow to Wall Street when millions of employees throughout the United States could be enrolled in programs that generate high fees for the financial industry.
This is not the right time to have this discussion.
The overall conversation in society about finances changes with the tenor of the times. From 2008 to 2010 or so, the idea of frugality had something of a renaissance. Commentators and financial experts extolled the virtues of saving money, being prepared for emergencies, and living life frugally. Let’s cut unnecessary expenses like cable television and get used to accepting any job available. When unemployment is high, we can question the value of higher education, even though the data always show that more education leads to lower unemployment and higher lifetime income.
During that recession, those Americans who didn’t save money during the better times were judged as poor managers of their own finances. Money management was now cool, with Mint.com and mobile apps for couponing rising to prominence.
Since that time, the stock market has skyrocketed, with the S&P 500 increasing 186.2% since March 6, 2009. Now commentators are criticizing Americans for not being invested in stocks at that time to take advantage of the best buying opportunities we might see for decades — at the same time the country was reeling in unemployment.
March 6 represented the bottom of the market as measured by the vast stock market index. But you wouldn’t have known that the future for stocks was so bright if you looked at what the media was reporting. Here’s the New York Times on March 6, 2009:
As government data revealed that 651,000 more jobs disappeared in February, a sense took hold that growing joblessness may reflect a wrenching restructuring of the American economy.
The unemployment rate surged to 8.1 percent, from 7.6 percent in January, its highest level in a quarter-century. In key industries — manufacturing, financial services and retail — layoffs have accelerated so quickly in recent months as to suggest that many companies are abandoning whole areas of business.
“These jobs aren’t coming back,” said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. “A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses.”
Most economists now assume American fortunes cannot improve before the last months of the year…
The monthly snapshot of the national employment picture revealed an even bleaker picture as the government revised upward the job losses in December and January. The economy has shed at least 650,000 jobs for three straight months, the worst decline in percentage terms over that length of time since 1975…
“The people who do what I do in the Detroit area are a dime a dozen,” said Kim Allgeyer, 46, a machine toolmaker in Westland, Mich., who was laid off in January from a company that makes assembly lines for the automakers. Unable to find another full-time job, he is subsisting on day labor and one-week stints for contractors. “Who’s going to put me to work?” he asked. “Where’s the work at? It’s just a great big black hole.”
Much the same can be said for financial services, which gave up 44,000 jobs in February…
Retailers are shuttering stores as the era of easy money fueled by rising house prices and abundant credit gives way to a period in which millions of households are forced to confine their spending to their paychecks…
This reflected the general feeling in the United States. The future looked grim, and the only people who were investing when the outlook seemed to be so bad were those who had the fortitude (and the money) to keep investing throughout the downturn.
And now, we’re in the opposite position. I wouldn’t be quick to call the stock market’s position today a historic high, but we have had the benefit of a good bull market in stocks since March 6, 2009. The conversation has changed.
We’re not asking, “Why weren’t you saving money and watching your wallet these past several years?” We are asking, “Why haven’t you been investing in the stock market these past several years?”
In fact, this is what the new survey asked respondents. Among the majority of Americans who are not invested in stocks right now, more than half say they don’t have the money. Maybe this is true. There are still many people in the United States without jobs, many living paycheck-to-paycheck, many focusing on affording the basic necessities of life without putting their existence in jeopardy.
But there are also many who just don’t prioritize investing in stocks because the recession taught them that they need to prioritize saving and paying down debt over risky investments. Perhaps they got burned in the recession and don’t want the same thing to happen — another temporary recession in my lifetime is inevitable.
Now that the stock market completed its bounce back to former highs, the media wants to encourage more investing in the stock market. Reporters and financial experts couldn’t take that approach in 2009 without alienating the vast majority of readers who were struggling financially during the recession. Today, the surveys are about who is investing in the stock market (and those who aren’t are missing out). A few years ago, the surveys were about who is saving a good percentage of their income (and those who weren’t were missing out).
I can’t tell the future, but I do know this: When the world is telling you to invest in stocks, be cautious; when the world is telling you to be cautious, look for opportunities.
Published or updated April 13, 2015.