Postcrisis, wary investors miss out on huge returns

  • It's been 10 years since the financial crisis, yet many Americans are still clawing their way back to where they stood before $2.7 trillion in retirement accounts were wiped out.
  • That's largely because they remain fearful of investing in the stock market.
  • "We know, historically, that a bull market climbs a wall of worry," says Greg Ip, The Wall Street Journal's chief economics commentator.

In the last decade, the S&P 500 has rallied 200 percent, yet many Americans are less willing to invest in the market than they were before 2008 — and before $2.7 trillion in retirement accounts were erased in the financial fallout.

"When you have giant shocks to the economy it changes people's attitudes about risk," said Greg Ip, chief economics commentator at The Wall Street Journal.

As a result, many people are still clawing their way back to where they stood a decade ago. About 65 percent of people say they have still not fully recovered from the financial crisis, according to a survey of 2,000 adults by Betterment.

Nearly a third said they are making a concerted effort to save more today as a result of the crash, Betterment found. But of those polled, only 10 percent of total respondents invest more today than they did 10 years ago, compared with 66 percent who said they invest less.

That likely means they are falling far short when it comes to maximizing returns. The average interest rate on a savings account has remained just above zero percent, while a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio has returned about 8 percent over the last 10 years.

And still, there is reason to remain overly cautious, most people believe. A large majority — 85 percent — said they expect another financial crisis in the next 10 years.

Those concerns may be overblown, Ip said. "Most crises are preceded by a boom in borrowing, we have a little bit of that here but not enough to be a red flag."

Further, "we know, historically, that a bull market climbs a wall of worry," he said — meaning that financial markets have a tendency to keep going up despite concerns the rally will end.

Commuters exit the Wall Street subway station near the New York Stock Exchange.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Commuters exit the Wall Street subway station near the New York Stock Exchange.

Roughly three-quarters of Americans, or 74 percent, said their financial habits have changed as a result of the financial fallout of the Great Recession, according to a separate survey by NerdWallet.

Nearly half of those polled said they are more cautious about their spending overall — 38 percent said they avoid debt as much as possible, one-quarter said they have limited the number of credit cards they have as a result of the financial crisis and 7 percent said they no longer invest in the stock market.

The personal finance website polled more than 2,000 adults in September.

"When it comes to spending and limiting credit card debt — that kind of conservatism is good," said Holden Lewis, NerdWallet's markets insight expert.

But there is a problem with people being too conservative with their investments, he added. "They are really missing out by not putting their money in the market."

"On the Money" airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 a.m. ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.

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