By Richard Burnett, Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — As Europe’s debt crisis reached a boil earlier this year, John Began jettisoned his investments in stock funds with foreign holdings.
The 77-year-old retiree, who lives in The Villages, Fla., said he no longer has the tolerance for investment risk he once had. So when major events such as the European Union crisis roil the world’s equities markets, he takes action.
“That’s why I got out of foreign-stock funds in the last few months and won’t get back in until, well, who knows?” he said. “Who knows what’ll happen in 10 years? And my time horizon is different now — I don’t have time to wait for the bounce-back. That’s why I play defensively these days.”
Despite the stock market’s comeback from its 2007-09 slump — the Dow Jones industrial average is up 100 percent since its March 2009 low — investors old and young continue to move billions of dollars out of stock mutual funds and into what they hope are safer, if less lucrative, havens.
Through early August, investors withdrew a net $65 billion from domestic stock funds so far this year, a trend that, if it holds up, would result in a fifth straight year of cash outflows, according to the Investment Company Institute, an industry trade group.
Stock funds remain the dominant mutual fund of choice for investors, with $5.6 trillion in assets as of June 30; still, investors have withdrawn more than $480 billion from U.S. stock funds since January 2008. Bond funds, meanwhile, have gained $800 billion, while stock-and-bond hybrid funds have gained $71 billion.
The recession and financial crisis of the past five years have chipped away at investor confidence in mutual funds generally. Nationwide, mutual-fund ownership slipped from 46 percent of all households to 44 percent during the same time period.
It’s natural, experts say, for older investors to shift their money from stocks to the perceived safety of bond funds, where it can generate interest income for their retirement years. That is partly the reason for the ongoing outflow of cash from stock funds, given the growing number of baby boomers who are retiring.
But a jump in the number of retirees doesn’t by itself explain the flow of money out of stock funds, those experts say. A growing number of younger investors, for example, have also fled stocks, said Paul Gregg, a former corporate executive who teaches personal finance at the University of Central Florida.
“The small investor is scared of Wall Street now,” Gregg said. “The nanosecond, computerized trading going on there is just very intimidating. And then you have a firm like Knight Capital that almost goes bust because of a computer screw-up. The average investor has a hard time understanding this and dealing with the risk.”
Even though the stock market has regained nearly all of what it lost in 2007-09, investor confidence in stock funds continues to be undermined by ongoing economic uncertainty in the U.S. and around the world, said Charles Rotblut, vice president of the American Association of Individual Investors.
“The major indexes have good year-to-date returns, but investor optimism is at very low levels,” he noted. “There are many who worry the combination of slow economic growth, the European sovereign-debt crisis and Washington infighting could cause another shoe to drop.”
Some of those nervous clients have made their way to Scott Cramer, a retirement specialist in Winter Park, Fla., to fret about their portfolios.
“They come in feeling like they’ve lost money, but when we show them the actual returns, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve made money and didn’t even know it,’ … ” he said. “Clearly, this market has been extremely volatile, but the overall performance has been positive.”