Dow’s hitting new highs — but are you?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average may have passed the 15,000 mark, but the stock market is just one barometer or prosperity, many economists and consumer experts argue. The problems that have plagued the United States in recent years, such as low interest rates and declining household income, remain very much in place.

By Charles Passy
May 8, 2013
Yahoo! Finance

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has passed the 15,000 mark. But is that really reason to celebrate?

The sentiment on Wall Street may be that our long national fiscal nightmare is finally over, but the stock market is just one barometer of prosperity, many economists and consumer experts argue. And the problems that have plagued the United States in recent years — declining household income, surging prices for many key goods and services, low interest rates for savings — remain very much in place, they say.

Add to that the fact that many investors started losing confidence in recent years — and went to cash at the very time the Dow began its bullish run in 2009 — and an equally scary reality emerges: The market’s average may not reflect what many Americans are seeing in their monthly portfolio statements. “We’re not even close to where we ought to be,” said Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, the organization behind the Consumer Confidence Index, in a conversation earlier this year.

Goldstein is referring to the fact that the index, which translates consumer views on the economy into a numerical formula, is well off from where it stood at the Dow’s previous peak: In October 2007, the index registered at 95.2. (The index’s post-2000 high of 144.7 came during the peak of the dotcom boom.)

It’s not all bad news, of course. The unemployment rate, currently at 7.5%, is well below its past-decade high of 10% in October 2009. And while consumer prices have climbed since October 2007, they have done so at a fairly normal annual clip of 1.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Plus, many savers have seen respectable increases in their retirement portfolios over the past five years. Vanguard, for example, reports that the average 401(k) account balance rose from $78,000 in 2007 to $86,000 in 2012. And even factoring in contributions, Vanguard research analyst Jean Young reports that one study of 401(k) participants, conducted by the firm, showed an average annual return rate of 2.3% over the same five-year period. Granted, such a yield is nothing to write home about — by comparison, the Dow was up at least 20% percent in five of the 10 years during the ‘90s — but Young adds that it’s a solid figure given the low inflation over the period.

Still, many financial experts say that there’s a rationale behind those headlines, despite the market’s rosy return and other improving economic indicators. In short, they view the current state of affairs as the Great Disconnect that has followed in the wake of the Great Recession. And it’s a story that they say can be told in one sobering statistic after another.

Begin with income. On the one hand, wages have basically kept pace with inflation since late 2007. But on the other, unemployment and underemployment have affected overall household income – to the point that there’s been about a 6% dip to the current median figure of $51,320 after adjusting for inflation, according to Sentier Research, which tracks income. “During this so-called recovery, we’ve gone down,” said Sentier principal Gordon Green in an earlier interview.

And what about expenses? While the Bureau of Labor Statistics may say prices are in check, some consumer watchdogs say what applies to overall prices may not apply to some key expense categories.

Consider the cost of fuel: A gallon of gas has gone from around $2.75 in October 2007 to $3.52 today, according to AAA. Or medical care: The employee’s share of annual premiums for family coverage at large firms (200-plus workers) has increased from $2,831 in 2007 to $3,926 in 2012, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Or even a steak: In a January 2013 survey by Teri Gault, founder of the coupon and savings site The Grocery Game, Gault noted that the price for top sirloin had surged from $2.99 to $6.99 a pound at one California supermarket in the past year — a 133% spike.

But what about stock market returns offsetting some of this economic stress? The relatively good news on the 401(k) side — at least as reported by Vanguard — does not necessarily jibe with the broader reality that many financial advisers say they’re seeing. They say they’re meeting with many first-time clients who have withdrawn large sums from IRA or traditional brokerage accounts during the past few years and have paid the price in returns as a result. “Almost everyone coming in to me today has tons of cash,” says Lee Munson, founder of Portfolio LLC, a New Mexico-based investment firm.

And there’s data to back up those adviser claims: In the two-year period through March 2013, the Investment Company Institute reports that outflows from equity mutual funds outpaced inflows in 19 of the 24 months — meaning money was being withdrawn from the market at a fairly significant rate. It’s a loss of investor confidence that speaks volumes, said Joe Duran, chief executive officer of United Capital, a California-based investment advisory firm: “They feel like the game is rigged.”

Of course, at one time, “going to cash” wasn’t so bad. In fact, it’s the way a generation of retirees saw themselves through their golden years, living off CDs and other fixed-income investments that paid yields of 5%-plus. But therein lies what many financial experts say is the greatest cause for concern over the past five years — the dip from that top-tier interest rate on savings of 5.3% in October 2007 to 1% today, according to Bankrate.com.

It’s a sea change that has shaken the traditional model of retirement planning, says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst of Bankrate.com. “The sharp reversal in interest rates has dramatically cut the buying power of retirees and anyone else dependent on a fixed income,” he said in a recent interview.

Still, McBride says that if someone saving for retirement was smart enough to stick with stocks through the past five years, they may be okay, other economic factors aside. But McBride is just not sure how many investors had the wisdom to do so. “The train may be back at the top of the mountain,” said McBride, “but you’re not there unless you stayed on the train.”

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