How they ride the Wall Street bull

Call it the "buying spree" of the century.

Americans can't seem to get enough of their stocks and bonds.

At the end of the 20th century - with the millennium approaching - capitalism has spread to much of the industrial world.

The 1990s have seen millions of Americans become active investors, a process that has made them the real financial titans of US industry.

How are Americans investing today? Mostly in stocks, say the pros. But also in bonds, money markets, even gold.

To find out how individuals are managing portfolios in a volatile market, we talked with four Americans investors. They represent diverse generations. But all are serious and in the market for the long term.

Each belongs to the American Association of Individual Investors in Chicago (312-280-0170). And each has a unique investment plan.

As Boston-area investor Rona Crystal put it - the funds may change, the individual stocks may differ, but the long-range objective remains the same: to make the money grow.

We then asked investment experts to rate the strategies.

According to the Washington-based Investment Company Institute, over 65 million individuals in over 37 million US households now own the lion's share - more than two-thirds - of the $4.5 trillion in assets held by the US mutual-fund industry alone.

The rest is held by large institutions, such as banks and pension funds - which, of course, also tend to be "owned" by scores of individual investors.

Stocks are clearly the investments of choice for the late 1990s. In January 1999, Americans kicked $15.7 million of new money into stock funds, up 11 percent from January 1998. That new money brings the total in stock funds near $3 trillion, up from $866 billion at the end of 1994.

More money is also going into bond funds. But increases for February appear to have been far weaker, reflecting recent market turbulence and uncertainties about the US and global economies.

Meantime, mutual-fund products continue to multiply. There are now far more mutual funds than stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Financial information firm Standard & Poor's, for example, recently announced that it will provide detailed analysis on some 8,600 mutual funds, while tracking some 11,000 funds in all.

For investors, the key "rules" of finance are as true now as they were in the past, says mutual-fund expert Tim Schlindwein, Chicago: You have to "know yourself, identify your goals," and then put a plan together "to invest for the long haul" to reach your objectives.

And to ensure solid returns, you must make certain your plan has a carefully devised allocation between stocks, bonds, and other assets, he says.

Investors today will find it much harder to measure stock-market valuations than in past years, in part because intangibles such as staff, goodwill, and expectations of marketshare, are a much larger portion of corporate assets than in the past, says Hans Stoll, who heads up the Financial Markets Research Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Those intangibles have helped push stock prices beyond traditional boundaries, creating new criteria for measuring prices as well as a volatile market.

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