Market myths

What have we learned from the crash? Nothing lasts forever. Even bear markets.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
 
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)
By Allan Sloan, senior editor at large

How America's largest companies fared in a brutal year. The list
2007_fortune_500.03.jpg
The market value of the Fortune 500 has plunged since Spring 2007.

(Fortune Magazine) -- Numbers can talk. And one of the key indicators of this year's Fortune 500 - the companies' stock market value - is absolutely shouting. It's telling us that nothing is forever, and that people, businesses, and governments can no longer depend on rising financial markets to bail them out.

The talking number is $4.1 trillion - the amount by which the market value of the Fortune 500 companies with publicly traded shares fell this year compared with 2008's list. The decline, 37%, is by far the biggest in both dollars and percentage since we started tracking the market values of America's biggest companies 22 years ago. The two-year decrease, $5.3 trillion and 43%, is a record as well.

Since the 500's peak valuation in spring 2007 - our stock market years end in late March - the global boom has been replaced by global doom, and economies throughout the world have gone south. And get this: The 500's valuation is down 13% from 11 years ago. Thus, big-company U.S. stocks have been dead money for more than a decade. Had they risen at their historical rate after 1998, they'd be worth more than twice as much as they are now. So much for the myth that stocks as a group are a fundamentally reliable investment over the long term.

Another shattered myth is that the financial markets would provide for average people while solving seemingly intractable problems such as government budget deficits and chronically underfunded pension plans.

The idea of the market as cure-all arose during the great bull market that ran from August 1982 through March 2000. With stocks (as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500) returning an average of 20% a year in capital gains and dividends, middle-class people could fund their own retirements with minimal effort and even afford private college for their kids if they started saving early. Market gains would transform state, local, and corporate pension funds from underfunded to overfunded, and capital gains- and stock option-related tax revenue would balance budgets on the federal, state, and local levels. No pain, all gain.

The topper came four years ago: President George W. Bush could even propose privatizing Social Security by letting beneficiaries invest in stocks and have the idea taken seriously. Now the cycle has shifted. For many older baby boomers who once felt comfortable but have seen their 401(k)s and other accounts eviscerated during the past two years, the magic words are no longer "stock market" - they're "Social Security." That program, which is going to need to cut growth in benefits or get a huge bailout in a few years, is assuming a more important role in retirement planning than it has in decades.

In addition to "the market will provide," another myth seems to have mercifully vanished for now: the CEO as wealth-creating warrior-king. That was a dominant theme in business journalism for years. The implication was that if a CEO's brilliant strategy "added" tens of billions of dollars to a company's stock market value, he (or the occasional she) deserved tens of millions - or hundreds of millions - in compensation.

Today it's clear that many of the now-vanished gains in company valuations had more to do with fashion than with the chief executive. Excessive CEO pay and perks that became routine during the market's good years are now under attack, as well they should be.

But one of the beauties of capitalism is that it's resilient. Just as good times don't last forever, neither do bad times. Someday - possibly for the 2010 Fortune 500 - the stock market will be on a roll again. Economies, which currently seem to be heading south at flank speed, will stabilize and maybe start to grow. One of the most dramatic changes brought on by our two-year-old financial meltdown - power shifting from private markets to governments - will begin to reverse itself.

Nevertheless, this market debacle will be a searing reminder for at least a generation that good times don't last forever. And that the stock market doesn't give anyone a free lunch.  To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.39 0.40 2.47%
Facebook Inc 59.09 0.20 0.34%
Yahoo! Inc 34.21 0.76 2.29%
The Coca-Cola Co 40.18 1.45 3.74%
Intel Corp 26.77 0.21 0.79%
Data as of Apr 15
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,262.56 89.32 0.55%
Nasdaq 4,034.16 11.47 0.29%
S&P 500 1,842.98 12.37 0.68%
Treasuries 2.63 -0.01 -0.42%
Data as of 6:41am ET
More Galleries
8 CEOs who took a pay cut in 2013 Median CEO pay inched up 9% in 2013 to $13.9 million. But not everyone got a bump last year. Here are eight CEOs who missed out. More
7 businesses Amazon wants to shake up From industrial supplies to educational software, Amazon is about more than just retail and books. More
Don't miss these Tax Day deals From massages and paper shredding to cookies and queso, celebrate the end of tax season with these Tax Day freebies and discounts. More
Sponsors
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.