Small investors feeling the pain

Optimism: It continues to exist among investors, but it is far more prevalent among younger market victims than among the retirement crowd.

July 21, 2002|By Bill Atkinson, Stacey Hirsh and Andrea K. Walker | Bill Atkinson, Stacey Hirsh and Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Mary Phillips had it all figured out. The 56-year-old office manager could retire within five years providing the money she pumped into the stock market grew.

But Phillips lost nearly half of the $18,000 she invested in an IRA when it plunged with the market. Now, the divorced mother of seven and a first-time investor has put off retirement indefinitely. "I was almost in tears because I'm the average person and I need that money," said Phillips, who works at the Injury Treatment Center in Baltimore and was counting on it, Social Security and part of her former husband's pension to retire on.

"It's like I took that money and just threw it into the street."

Phillips is like tens of thousands of investors who put their faith, future, dreams and hard-earned money into the market, only to watch helplessly as their investments vanished. The market's decline has affected a wide range of people, from retirees to those planning to retire soon to young workers who have seen their 401(k)s and IRAs shrivel.

"The pain that investors have been feeling can't be overestimated," said Jonathan Murray, a financial adviser at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "It is quite widespread because so many Americans now own stock."

Investors have had to sell boats and cars and cut back on vacations, even nights out, Murray said. Hardest hit have been people who retired three years ago and used high rates of return to calculate what their portfolios would earn during their retirement.

"For those folks ... this has been extremely painful," Murray said. "They have experienced a significant decline in their capital."

The stock market's drop has been sharp and painful. The white-hot market peaked at $17 trillion March 24, 2000, according to Wilshire Associates Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based financial advisory firm. But more than $7 trillion, or 45 percent of the total value, has been wiped out.

The damage is so great that investors would need a minimum of 10 percent annual returns for nearly four years just to get even.

An investor who put $1 into the market on July 1, 1997, when the Wilshire 5000 market index - the broadest measure of the stock market - was at 8,441.43, would have exactly that today: $1.

"I think it probably has caused some people to say, `That is it for me,'" said Andrew M. Brooks, head of equity trading at T. Rowe Price Group Inc. "What is going to take a long time is restoring investors' confidence. There will be a time when it [faith] will come back."

The market's plunge may have broader implications than shearing away investors' portfolios. For months, economists have remained optimistic about the economy's recovery. Now, there is increasing concern that the unraveling stock market could shake consumer confidence and push the country back into recession.

"The implications for the economy are very dire," said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer of First Albany Corp. "What does it mean for investors? A lot of life plans are going to change. It means sleepless nights; it means lots of hand wringing; it means changed plans. It is the wealth effect in reverse. We are all in the same boat."

Even though investors from nearly all walks of life have suffered, some remain optimistic that the market will bounce back. Many of those are younger people who have time to make up losses.

Jeff Kniffin, a 28-year-old paramedic from New Jersey who was in Baltimore on business, said he isn't frightened even though the $15,000 he invested in a mutual fund over the past three years has fallen about 40 percent.

"I'm still going to invest the money," Kniffin said. "Obviously, it's a long-term investment. Everything's cyclical. Everything comes back around."

Elin Williams, 25, an account executive with Digital Printer Copying in Baltimore, is just as optimistic. She has salted away $4,000 in a 401(k) plan, which is down 25 percent. Personal holdings in AOL Time Warner Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC have also fallen.

But outside a downtown cafe, Williams said she hopes to earn back what she lost. "I didn't change anything" in the portfolio, she said. "I'm hoping it will turn around and go back up and maybe I'll make $1,000 I didn't have before. It's not money I ever saw anyway."

Williams flinched when she first saw her statements with the losses. "It bothered me to lose money - I mean, it's money I earned," she said. "But there are people who have lost much more than me."

People such as Dave Phoebus, 54, a high school biology teacher, who was preparing to retire. His retirement account lost 15 percent in one quarter.

"If the stock market takes a hit ... it makes it impossible to retire," he said, acknowledging that he will have to work longer.

"There's been no sunshine in it for a while," Phoebus said.

He had imagined himself in a new line of work or perhaps going back to school to further his own education. "Exercising those options is no longer imminent," he said.

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