Bull market creates an era of mom-and-pop investors

Years of double-digit gains change how Americans view money management.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The record stock market of the 1990s - the greatest generator of wealth in America's history - has fundamentally shifted the way people in the workaday world view their money and finances.

From self-management of 401(k)s to the brave new world of Internet trading, Wall Street itself has come to the homes of Main Street, USA.

Just how long the unprecedented creation of wealth will continue depends, of course, on the stock market. But analysts say the culture of income has changed irrevocably.

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In the past, ma and pa might have bought a few shares of a blue-chip stock and let them grow for a decade or two. More active middle-income investors might have taken a tip from their brokers, and then given them a call when they wanted to make an occasional quick profit - less a broker's fee and commission, of course.

Not today. It began in the mid-1990s, as the economy began to climb out of recession, as baby boomers began thinking more and more of their retirement.

And with unemployment sinking to record lows, these prosperous boomers, generally wary of Social Security, began to put their faith in the stock market.

"In '95, everything exploded," says Craig McBurney, founder and president of TradeMentor, an online company that teaches people how to do their own trading using the Internet. "And it was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy: People who were looking ahead at retirement began aggressively going into equities. This drove the market, and in turn attracted even more cash."

Nest egg no longer

Indeed, the Dow Jones gained 33.5 percent in 1995, followed by 26.0 percent in 1996 and 22.6 in 1997. After a slower 16.1 percent gain in 1998, this past year closed out at 25.2 percent - the greatest creation of wealth in history.

So spectacular were these gains for people accustomed to the traditional ebbs and flows of the stock market, who could blame them for starting to disregard the "just think long-term" advice? The market was coming to be seen as more than just a means to put together a retirement nest egg.

"We've seen a reemergence of individuals buying and selling for their own account," says William Freund, director of the Pace University Center for Equity Markets and former chief economist for the New York Stock Exchange.

And it's not just for their retirement any more, he says. It's a way to augment income. New windows on the house, traveling, taking a leave of absence from work to do a project at home - these are just some of the boons of a robust economy on market-savvy middle America, say many observers.

And now comes the Internet. In just this past year, the advent of online trading has given folks unprecedented access to the markets and their own investments.

"That's the seminal shift in the '90s - people taking control of their money," says Mr. McBurney. "They couldn't take control of their money without the Net, because there wasn't any way to physically access the market unless you dragged yourself down to the floor of the stock exchange and became a floor broker. But how many people were going to do that?"

Certainly not Dan Johnson, who is busy working at an insurance company in Chicago. Yet Mr. Johnson and others like him represent a new breed of do-it-yourself investors for whom their jobs are just one source of income - and often not the primary source, either.

A recent college graduate, Johnson started trading stocks with some of his extra cash a few years ago. Today, he sits at his computer at work while a stock ticker rolls at the bottom of his screen. He checks the performance of his stocks throughout the day. Then he'll hop on the Web at lunch to make a trade.

"I used to go through a full-service broker two years ago," says Johnson. "Then I switched to [an online brokerage firm] where it's real time and costs less. In the last two years, I've cut my brokerage fees in half."

"It's a lot of work and you have to study how stocks move. You can lose your money really easily. I lost $10,000 in three days in 1998. But you make money, too."

Indeed, Johnson says he made a 178 percent return by trading on the Nasdaq this year.

If he continues to get high returns on his investments every month, "I'll stop working in two years for sure," and just live off dividends.

Ordinary Americans are not only making money, they are enjoying themselves as well.

"It's incredibly fun," says Maryann Cunningham, a nurse at Missouri Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis. "There's not a day [at work] that we don't talk about the stock market."

Ms. Cunningham's mother helps her out by watching television analysts give tips about which stocks to research.

She then jumps on the Web and reads up on various companies. She says she likes to invest in technology stocks and medical companies. (When one goes down, the other will go back up, she says.)

Majority losing money

Not everyone is as successful as Johnson or as enthusiastic as Cunningham, however. Experts point out that the vast majority of this new breed of day trader is losing money.

"I would say people now look at it as not something you just dabble in, but as something you can count on as a return," says Martha Stephens, director of corporate development at the National Association of Investors Corporation (NAIC) in Madison Heights, Mich. "But if they are not educated, they are going to get burned," she warns.

To prevent getting burned, many investors become members of an investment club. Over the past five to seven years, the number of clubs affiliated with Ms. Stephens and the NAIC has grown to almost 37,000.

Many worry that this free-wheeling trend - playing the market for a quick and enormous return - is endangering the true purpose of investing, however.

Instead of choosing a company's stock on the basis of a solid, viable business plan, an investor looks for the quick gain of a skyrocketing Initial Public Offering.

"When the purpose of business becomes stock, that's a very dangerous thing," says David Simon, managing director of Digital Video Investments, a research firm for institutional investors. "When it unwinds, the pain will be incalculable. You've essentially perverted the entire notion of business, which is to build value."

* Staff writers Stacy A. Teicher and Stephanie Cook contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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