Like kids on a road trip, investors keep asking: are we there yet?
Investors big and small are running out of patience with a market producing stomach-wrenching ups and downs.
They also are losing confidence in an economy that has not generated a resurgence in employment and that still shows no signs of a full recovery, even though experts said the recession ended in June 2009.
The big concern we hear from clients is 'Where does it all end? When do we get to say we've turned the corner?', said LLBH Private Wealth Management co-founder Jim Pratt-Heaney, whose Westport, Connecticut, firm manages about $7 billion. The investor's psyche is tired. You can only be beaten on the head so long.
If it's not one thing, it's another: first, Japan's tsunami and nuclear disaster in March halted a rebound. The Federal Reserve's QE2 stimulus program ended last month, having lined the pockets of portfolio managers, but contributing to rising commodity prices that hit consumer pockets.
U.S. home values keep sliding. Worries about sovereign default in Greece this week spread to Italy. Each day, investors read distressing headlines about the federal budget and stubbornly high unemployment.
The markets have been volatile. Since the benchmark S&P 500 Index reached a three-year high on April 29, it fell as much as 7.2 percent by June 15. It is down 3.2 percent through today.
That frightened investors -- the trend is illustrated by online retail brokers such as Charles Schwab Corp
Industry fund flows show that investors are fleeing stocks and stashing cash into safe bonds and money markets, despite stingy yields. U.S. stock funds saw net withdrawals in each of the past five weeks, and were down roughly $9 billion for the first half, according to the Investment Company Institute.
Bond funds gained about $65 billion in new money in the same period, while $74 billion poured into money markets.
A small sample of financial advisers told Reuters they are encouraging clients to stay invested.
LLBH's Pratt said his firm is trying to mute volatility with high-yielding master limited partnerships, emerging market equities and hedge funds.
Ron Carson, an independent broker and adviser overseeing $3.2 billion in assets, says his firm is in protect mode, creating portfolios that are hedged against an expected downturn and uncomfortably high cash positions.
We think (the market has) put our highs in for the year, said Carson, whose Omaha-based Carson Wealth Management Group is one of the largest U.S. independent advisers.
Carson said clients are not focused on daily headlines, but have deeper worries about the economy.
Our clients don't see how the United States will get from underneath its debt, and wonder, 'do our politicians have a clue.' There's a real lack of confidence in the system, he said.
Mitch Cox, Barclays Wealth's global head of research and the head of its U.S. high-net-worth brokerage business, said that investors are more pessimistic, but suggested that the markets may be overreacting to economic and other data.
There's cash on the balance sheets and an opportunity to deploy that cash, Cox said. You'll continue to see a pickup in M&A activity. There's a stability you'll get from developed equities you're not going to see elsewhere in the market.
Barclays also introduced separate accounts that build customized muni bond portfolios, he said.
Sontag Advisory, a New York investment adviser overseeing $6.8 billion, also is leaning toward blue chip stocks and strategies that seek out high yields.
We're looking for diversification, but it's hard to find, said Chief Investment Officer Donna Levy, noting the firm has added emerging market bonds and alternative investments, such as global macro funds.
There's a crescendo of macro factors the markets are focused on, and that is creating a bipolar market, she said.
More sanguine was Andrew Bodner, founder of Parsippany, New Jersey's Double Diamond Investment Group LLC, who observed that markets went on a tear after three previous periods when investors realized no gains after a decade or more.
If investors can look past the headlines, there are some tremendous positives, Bodner said, such as new factory orders and rock-solid corporate balance sheets. The S&P 500 also is cheap relative to forward-year earnings, he said.
Yet investors remain leery of diving back in to stocks, preferring to sit on cash.
Three years ago, we had new money pouring in, but now it's more difficult, said Bodner, a former UBS
(Editing by Robert MacMillan)