NEW YORK – When the stock market hit its all-time high three years ago — three years that somehow seem much longer — Bob Auer's life was very, very easy.
Then a broker with Morgan Stanley in Indianapolis, Auer had no trouble convincing clients that they could make money buying stocks.
"You could pick up the phone and get people to do just about anything because everything was working and it had been working for a while," he says.
A bubble fueled for years by easy credit and soaring real estate values stopped expanding on Oct. 9, 2007. That day, the Standard and Poor's 500 hit 1,565. Within a month, it had fallen more than 7 percent as traders began questioning subprime loans.
You know the story from there. Investors who stuck with the market through the worst financial crisis in 70 years are still down about 20 percent from the boom days after accounting for dividends, wondering whether their accounts will ever recover.
If history is any guide, it may be a while. It took 15 years for investors to recover from the Crash of 1929 if they reinvested their dividends, and 25 years for the stock market to come back if they didn't, according to a study by Ned Davis Research.
While no one is betting that it will take until 2032 for the stock market to fully recover this time, there are signs that investors could be drifting in the doldrums for a while, even after last year's rebound. It took seven years for stock prices to regain their highs after the Internet bubble burst in 2000.
High unemployment, stagnant home prices and a shrinking demand for stocks as Baby Boomers begin to retire will likely stomp on the foot of any market run-up in the future, economists say.
Even if the market has another 11 percent jump as it did in September, few expect it to last.
"It's going to be some time before you see the S&P back at 1,575," said Keith Hembre, the chief economist at First American Funds. "There's a tremendous number of imbalances out there, whether it's the deficit, zero percent interest rates or the bloated federal balance sheet."
On Friday, the S&P 500 closed at 1,165.15, still 25 percent off its all-time high. The Dow broke through 11,000 for the first since in May but remains 22 percent below where it stood in October 2007.
The money moving out of mutual funds shows that many investors have lost faith in the U.S. stock market. Since October 2007, they've pulled $262 billion from funds that invest in domestic stocks, according to the Investment Company Institute. Investments in bonds have jumped by about $634 billion in the same time.
When they decide to buy something other than bonds, more investors are taking advantage of new funds that make it easier to invest in assets that were once too complicated or expensive for non-professionals.
In the last three years, approximately $85 billion has been invested in mutual funds that hold stocks in emerging markets like China and Brazil, and another $65 billion has gone into funds in commodities like cotton and copper, according to Morningstar.
In but one measure of how far afield from stocks investors are now looking, $55 billion is invested in State Street's gold fund alone. Add that all up, and it means that there aren't as many buyers willing to push stock prices higher at home.
Ted Roman, a financial planner in San Diego for the past 30 years, has never seen his clients sour on U.S. stocks for so long. "There's a definite resistance to investing in the market now," he says. "It's like they are all suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome."
The days following the 1987 market crash were easy compared with this, he says. Then, it took only a year and eight months for investors to recover, when you include dividends. Now, his clients are often saddled with both stock losses and real estate that isn't worth what it once was.
Investors who hold on to domestic stocks may need to relearn how to gauge their success. For the past 25 years, investors were trained to consider rising stock prices the measure of a good investment. But analysts say dividends, once thought to be appropriate only for retirees counting on income, will now account for the majority of investor return.
Just look at Johnson & Johnson. Based on price alone, the stock is up 4.8 percent over the last year. But had a stockholder reinvested all of the company's dividends, his total return would have been 8.4 percent.
The company's 3.4 percent dividend yield — a ratio that tells investors how much a company pays out in dividends relative to its share price — is currently higher than the 10-year Treasury bond, whose main attraction to most investors is its ability to provide income.
That's more like how the stock market functioned before the long bull market of the 1980s and 1990s, says Jim Reid, a strategist with Deutsche Bank in London. Until 1958, the dividend yield of the stock market was greater than the yield from T-bonds, he notes.
Exxon Mobil, Verizon Communications and PepsiCo are among the more than 100 large companies whose stocks now pay a greater dividend yield than their average bond yields, Reid noted in a recent research report.
Perhaps because they don't come with the chance to brag about buying a stock like Netflix at $17 a share and watching it soar to $162, plain-vanilla dividend stocks aren't that exciting for most investors.
So while the market may continue to chug on below its previous highs, some wallflowers may miss out on a stealthier form of gains.
It may take a few months of outsized jumps in the prices of U.S. stocks for the lay investor to once again feel like he's missing out on something.
"There's nothing like an 11 percent return in one month to turn people around," says Bob Browne, the chief investment officer at Northern Trust. But by that time, the quick, exciting gains may be gone.