Although the memory of Lehman Brothers’ 2008 collapse may be fading on Wall Street, the shock still lingers on Main Street—and may again be hurting ordinary investors. A new survey of individual investors is a reminder of just how much we are primal creatures that remember the pain of loss more than the joy of gains.
As my colleague Roben Farzad recently reminded us, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is on a tear, rallying on rising corporate profits (including Apple’s earnings bonanza) and optimism about further help from the Federal Reserve. Since its nadir in March 2009, the S&P 500 has more than doubled and is now at 1,463, not that far from the all-time high of 1,526 it reached in September 2007.
But ask Main Street investors, and you find that the market isn’t all roses: Memories of the steep losses from 2008 and 2009 still haunt, causing them to underestimate the market’s performance.
Franklin Templeton surveys individual investors annually, asking how they perceive the market’s performance in the previous year. In 2010, 66 percent of investors said the S&P had fallen in 2009, when it actually had gained 26.5 percent—in a year following a steep 37 percent plunge. In 2011, 48 percent of investors said the markets were down over the course of 2010, when the S&P had risen more than 15 percent. And data just released on Sept. 18 shows that 53 percent of investors think the S&P declined in 2011, when the index actually rose 2 percent.
It’s fair to wonder if investors who don’t know whether the S&P made or lost money the prior year are sufficiently attuned to the market to risk cash in it. However, Franklin Templeton’s survey is also a marketing exercise—the company is a major mutual fund seller that would like to help guide you into investing.
The S&P has gained more than 16 percent so far this year, but that’s no reason to to think investors have suddenly overcome their post-crash trauma. They have continued pulling out of equities, taking more than $66 billion (XLS) out of the U.S. stock market in 2012.
This fear of getting burned again—“loss aversion,” in financial psychology lingo—means that Main Street is being hit by a double whammy. Not only did individual investors take a beating when the market tanked, they’re not benefiting from its rebound, either.