NEW YORK (Reuters) - Luke Thomas, 44, an information technology field manager who lives in Miami, began investing in the U.S. stock market in his early 20s, attracted by the prospect of learning “how to grow a little bit of money into a lot,” he said.
At the time, he put most of his money into a handful of small-cap and over-the-counter stocks. Yet watching the Russell 2000 index of small-cap companies fall more than 60 percent during the 2008-2009 financial crisis scared him into diversifying his portfolio. He now invests in large-cap stocks, real estate, options, and cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, spreading his risk over several asset classes.
“A younger Luke would have focused 90 percent on crypto, putting all my eggs in one basket. But this way, I’m not overly exposed,” he said.
Thomas is not alone in his hesitation to make big bets.
Ten years after the start of the financial crisis that erased $16.4 trillion in assets from U.S. households, Americans have yet to embrace the U.S. stock market with the same fervor as before, holding fewer individual stocks and putting less money into equities overall despite an uninterrupted 9-year bull market that has pushed the S&P 500 up nearly 310 percent from its 2009 lows.
Overall, U.S. households have $900 billion less invested in stocks than in 2007, according to Goldman Sachs research, leaving buying by U.S. corporations now the greatest driver of demand. In 401(k) retirement plans, meanwhile, investors now hold an average of 52.4 percent in equity-only funds, down from the 64.7 percent they held in 2007, according to Fidelity.
Instead, investors now hold an average of 33.2 percent of their assets in blended target-date funds that combine stocks, bonds and cash based on a person’s expected retirement date, more than double the 14.5 percent of assets invested in the category in 2007.
The decline in the assets invested in stocks comes even as investors have largely benefited from the recovery in equity prices. The average 401(k) balance at the end of 2017 was $104,300, up 112 percent from the average of $49,000 at the end of 2008 and up 54 percent from the pre-crisis average of $67,600 at the end of 2007, according to Fidelity.
“There just doesn’t seem to be the same level of interest or animal spirits” among investors now for equities, said Mark Paccione, director of investment research at Raleigh, North Carolina-based Captrust Financial Advisors, which oversees $250 billion in assets.
Clients are much more concerned about the effect of rising interest rates and inflation on their bond portfolios, he said.
“They’re very worried we will have a bear market in