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When the S&P 500 finally broke into new record territory for the first time in more than seven years last week, the ingredients behind the recent bull run were widely recounted: hedge fund billions, a weak dollar, historically low interest rates and takeovers, both private and public, all add up to a perfect storm for stocks. But there is one missing ingredient in all this: Where in the world are the small investors?
You know who I'm talking about — the thousands of waiters, doormen, accountants, dentists and nannies who clamored for the latest IPO allocation or hot stock tip just a few short years ago?
Burned by the dot com implosion, these earnest individuals have been largely absent from the U.S. market in the recent market run-up. This, despite the fact that this bull market has been remarkable for its lack of volatility. In fact, we've gone more than four years without a 10 percent pullback in the major market averages — the longest such upward march in history.
So what happened to all the small fries? First, they have flocked toward professional managers in droves and, given the choice, they have put their money overseas. The trends are dramatic. While the total amount of household money invested in stocks is now about the same as it was in the bubble year of 1999, the percent of stock owned directly by individuals has plummeted —from 57 percent in 1999 to 33 percent today. That translates into trillions of dollars worth of investment decisions once made at the kitchen table, now being made by the pros.
And when small investors do call the shots in directing their 401(k) assets, they've been flocking to foreign stocks as never before — leaving U.S. equities in the dust. The Investment Company Institute reports that of the $18.3 billion that Americans plowed into stock funds April — an astounding $16.6 billion (or more than 90 percent) went into global funds. That left just $1.7 billion earmarked for funds that invest in stocks here in the U.S. It's a pattern that's been in place going back to early 2006 and one that so far has paid off handsomely for millions of 401(k)'s holders.
So what does it mean? Well, when it comes to the stocks that make up U.S. benchmarks like the Dow and the S&P 500, it means that much of the playing field has been left to the big guys — the hedge fund and pension fund managers who now account for more than two thirds of the trading volume on the NYSE on a given day. Armed with leverage and driven by relative performance the pros tend to move in one direction — and right now that direction is up.
So should savvy investors follow the pros or the little guy? Well, as Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. once famously remarked, when the shoeshine boy starts giving you stock tips it's time to sell. That was as true in 1999 as it was in 1929, but it's not happening today.
No, the recent behavior of the individual investor in the U.S. suggests this Bull Run may have a ways to go. In China, where, according to Bloomberg, a record 455,000 new brokerage accounts were opened last Monday alone, it’s a whole different story.
Terry Keenan is anchor of Cashin’ In and is a FOX News Channel business correspondent. Tune in to Cashin' In on Saturdays at 11:30am and find out what you need to know to make your money grow and keep what you already have!