Why Retail Investors Still Avoid Stocks
Major U.S. stock indexes have returned 80% or more since their 2009 lows, but individual investors remain wary. Investor psychology expert Brad Barber discusses why
Brad Barber: My sense is that sentiment for equities isn't going to get positive until the economy is on strong footing. Even though the market has come back, it hasn't really been accompanied by robust economic growth. That can to some degree explain why retail investors remain skittish. The back story of the returns has just not been strong for the last year or two.
Yes, and it's that back story that I think would need to improve to see renewed excitement and participation by retail investors.
The more recent crisis certainly feels different. Unemployment rates have been much higher for much longer. The talk on the news is constantly about the weakness in the economy. The Internet bubble bursting in 2000 was a dramatic event, but it was not accompanied by the magnitude of economic dislocation that followed this financial crisis. Losing your job is different from losing a lot of your retirement portfolio.
It is true that retail investors directly hold very little stock, under 20 percent [of total shares] these days. There's been a secular shift toward institutions holding investments on behalf of individuals. Having said that, sentiment can also affect institutions to some degree. Direct ownership of stocks by retail investors isn't a big [driver], but it's a good instrument for thinking about the sentiment of the market as a whole.
The order flow of small investors perversely forecasts returns. What I mean by that is: If small investors seem to be buying a stock, it tends to forecast poor returns for the stock. Conversely, if small retail investors are selling a stock, it tends to portend strong returns for the stock.
There is a lot of evidence that people's attitudes about their portfolios change as a function of market conditions. There is a nice paper by Ulrike Malmendier [an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley] and Stefan Nagel [a finance professor at Stanford University] looking at how investors allocate stocks in their retirement portfolios.
Or at least have a lower allocation to stocks. In the late 1990s, when I was teaching MBA students, it was hard to convince students that if you held stocks for 10 years that you had any risk of loss. That's not so hard anymore. [Laughter.] The example that I used to try to hammer home this point was Japan, which in the late 1990s had been mired in a 10-year crash. Now it's 25 years and counting.
It's very difficult for people to understand their ability to tolerate risk until they experience it. It's all well and good to say "I can tolerate the gyrations of the markets." You can sit down with a financial adviser or you can go through online tutorials, but you don't understand until you actually live through it.
The most pressing issue is how investors save and prepare for retirement. This will become even more pressing as we think about solutions to the underfunding of Social Security benefits.