Americans are steering clear of stock market

The excitement surrounding Facebook's initial public offering was enough for Alex Tsesis, a law professor, to give the stock market one more try. After the company's stock encountered technical problems, then sputtered for three days, Tsesis sold his few hundred shares for a $2,200 loss and vowed to end his equity gambles for good.

''I'm just extremely skeptical about the ability of a retail purchaser to be able to play on a level field in the market," said Tsesis, who is 45 and lives in Chicago. "I'm just trying to get out of stocks."

Tsesis is part of a growing retreat from the stock market, a trend that began before the Facebook debut. The portion of Americans invested in the stock market dropped this year to its lowest level since Gallup started asking, every two years, in 1998 — 53 percent said they were in the market in April, compared with a high of 67 percent in 2002 and 65 percent as recently as 2007, before the financial crisis. A Bankrate poll in April found that only 17 percent of respondents were more likely to invest in the stock market, even with the small amount of interest they earn on bank deposits.

The financial industry had hoped that Facebook, the highly anticipated and biggest-yet tech offering, would rekindle ordinary investors' excitement in stocks. Instead, first-day trading snags, a 16 percent decline in the new stock's price and suggestions that warnings were exchanged among professional investors about Facebook's prospects have stoked fears that the stock market may not be safe for everyone.

Fuel for the fire


''This added gasoline to a fire that was already burning," said Craig Ferrantino, the president of the financial advisory Craig James Financial Services in Melville, N.Y.

Ferrantino recounted a breakfast for his clients shortly after the offering in which the biggest topic of discussion was what the Facebook deal had revealed and the sense that "the deck is stacked against them."

Survey: Stock interest drops

Perhaps the best indicator of the broader movement away from stocks is an annual survey done by the Investment Company Institute, which has shown that the percentage of American households invested in domestic stocks, including directly or through any other vehicle whether through mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, has fallen every year since the financial crisis to a low in 2011 of 46.4 percent, down from a high of 53 percent in 2001.

Stocks remain favored by millions of Americans who invest big parts of their retirement savings in them, and investors who have held the course have benefited from the 29 percent rise in the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500-stock index since the beginning of 2009. This does not included the dividends that would have been earned.

For decades, participation in the stock markets increased as 401(k) retirement plans grew in popularity and retail brokers created easier access for small traders. The Dow Jones industrial average rose an average of 8.4 percent each year from 1950 to 2000, with some extended periods of little to no growth.

Since then, though, the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2001 and the financial crisis in 2008 have created a so-called lost decade, in which broad stock indexes wound up not that far beyond where they started.

Small investors are part of a bigger flight from American stocks. Institutional investors like high-frequency traders have been drawn to other assets like currencies, and pension funds have shifted more money into alternatives, like private equity investments. This has led to a steady decline in the volume of trading in the American stock market and a drop in revenue for New York financial firms. But it has also raised broader questions about the prospects of a market that has long been the central cog for American companies raising money to grow and create jobs.


''If investors lose confidence then capital formation doesn't function as well," said David Weild, a former vice chairman of Nasdaq, and the founder of Capital Markets Advisory Partners.

Reasons vary

Among the ordinary investors who are helping drive this shift, the motivations are varied. Some are retiring and making a conservative move to less risky assets like bonds. Others are put off by the economic uncertainty as Europe fails to find solutions to its debt problems. But there has also been a growing din of complaints about the flaws in the structure of the markets — as displayed by the Facebook debut.

Robert Diepersloot, a dairy farmer in Madera, Calif., said that watching the Facebook offering confirmed all the fears and suspicions that led him earlier this year to take out the savings, in the five figures, that he and his wife had invested in stocks and stock mutual funds and move it into real estate investments.

''We just pulled out completely," Diepersloot said. "We've lost trust in the whole scenario."

Disappointing results

Diepersloot's wife, Willemina, said that there was no one event that drove the family out of stocks, just a disappointment with recent returns and a slow erosion of faith in the reliability of the market.

Finance industry professionals are wondering what might persuade Robert Diepersloot and others like him to change their minds, given that the stock market's rise over the last three years has not done the job. Many insiders say that may happen only if interest rates begin to rise, after years of falling, and drive down the value of bonds, which is where investors have shifted.


Facebook's stock offering appeared to be doing the job of drumming up interest before it went awry. At one discount broker, ShareBuilder, the number of new accounts opened was 20 times the average and trading activity was up about 50 percent on May 18 across all discount brokers, according to Richard Repetto, a Sandler O'Neill analyst who researches brokers.

Fuad Ahmed, the chief executive of the discount broker Just2Trade, said that by the end of Friday about 80 percent of the customers who had bought Facebook dumped it.

By Repetto's analysis, trading activity at the retail brokers on the Monday after the IPO was back where it had been before Facebook began trading.

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