Making lots of money, but not much fun

Mutual funds

February 18, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

What if Wall Street gave a party and everybody showed up -- but almost nobody had any fun?

As the great stock bull market of the 1990s plows onward, the tens of millions of American shareholders are richer by a collective $1.6 trillion in the past year alone.

Yet their mood seems to move inversely with their ballooning portfolios.

Instead of excitement, hoopla and the smugness that comes with being "in the know" about stocks -- all hallmarks of previous American bull markets -- investors' emotions run more to guilt, anxiety, apathy and even mild disappointment.

Listen to Jan Chatten-Brown, a 49-year-old Los Angeles attorney who has been investing in stock mutual funds for 10 years.

She's glad to be making money, of course.

But she worries that "stocks seem to do best when [companies] are laying people off. Since we're all in this economy together, I find that a bit unnerving."

Among professional money managers, the past 13 months have been a continual and mostly losing battle to keep up with the Dow Jones industrial average, which soared 33.5 percent last year and is up an additional 8.5 percent this year.

Many fund managers "don't understand what's going on" with the economy or the market, says Alfred Kugel, strategist at the investment firm Stein, Roe & Farnham in Chicago.

"That's why it's not fun."

It can be argued that stocks in the 1990s are rocketing for all the wrong reasons:

* Strong corporate profits achieved at the expense of workers' job security,

* Falling interest rates that reflect an anemic economy, and,

* Most important, a record and rising level of investment by aging Americans who own stocks not necessarily because they want to, but because they feel as if they have no choice -- with retirement approaching and stocks universally touted as the only true path to financial security.

Even as recently as the 1980s bull market, many investors were still confident about their job and reasonably certain that their home's value would appreciate substantially over time. Those hopes have since faded for millions of Americans.

"People are being forced to be speculators" in stocks, contends Ricky Harrington, a veteran market analyst at the brokerage Interstate/Johnson Lane in Charlotte, N.C. "They really do not know what they're doing."

Today, mutual funds -- which allow small investors to pool their money in a diversified portfolio of stocks under the stewardship of a professional manager -- have become the principal vehicle of stock ownership for individuals.

In 1995, gross purchases of stock mutual funds totaled a record $310 billion, up more than 300 percent just since 1990, when purchases were $71 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute, the funds' chief trade group.

There are more than 2,200 stock funds today holding assets of more than $1.2 trillion, up from 288 funds holding a $44 billion in 1980. The financial empires that have been built on the funds -- Fidelity Investments, Vanguard Group, Templeton Funds -- are franchises whose names now are nearly as familiar as Coca-Cola and Gillette.

The public's rationale for choosing mutual funds over individual securities is easy to understand. For convenience and diversification the fund concept is hard to beat, especially for people with relatively small sums to invest.

But the ascension of the funds also explains why many investors who are directly responsible for stocks' bull market feel no strong linkage to it -- unlike in previous bull markets when pride in knowing about individual stocks, or at least pretending to, was an integral part of investing.

What's more, for the past decade Americans have been conditioned by the media and by an army of financial advisers to be "buy-and-hold" stock fund investors. Trying to accurately time the market's ups and downs is far too difficult, experts insist.

That has fostered a sense that fund investors needn't pay close attention to the market; everything will work out in the long run, people are assured, because the market always goes up over time.

The high degree of trust in that premise is most apparent in the avalanche of cash entering mutual funds each month through 401k savings plans and other such retirement accounts.

Fidelity Investments, the United States' largest mutual fund operator and one of the biggest stock investors, estimates that 70 percent of its monthly cash intake is through retirement plans.

Because that money is automatic and restricted -- investors aren't supposed to count on touching it until old age -- there is even less reason for people to get caught up in the emotion of a hot bull market.

But if this is history's first largely emotionless bull market, the reason may be less the style of investment people have chosen than what has motivated them to invest in the first place.

Lacking job security and constantly reminded about the tottering state of Social Security and Medicare, many Americans -- especially the 76 million-member baby boom generation -- believe that investing "is not discretionary -- it's now necessary," says Susan Sterne, economist at Economic Analysis Associates in Greenwich, Conn.

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