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TheStreet Open House

We All Just Learned an Expensive Lesson

Where did all the money go? That's the plaintive cry as investors check the balances in their 401(k) plans or IRAs.

Strangely, they never asked how the money landed in their account as stocks moved higher. That was taken for granted. Well, don't look around now to find out who has "your" money. It disappeared as magically as it arrived. It's gone to "money heaven"!

We've turned ordinary Americans into portfolio managers of their own retirement plans, many of whom don't have the knowledge, perspective or self-discipline to make wise decisions. It shouldn't come as a surprise that, as prospects for the economy dim, fewer people want to own the businesses that those stocks represent. When investors rush to sell, prices go down -- and the money represented by those stock prices simply disappears.

Now, it's not just the financial stocks or the "risky" shares that have fallen 20 percent or more. Even the "good" stocks, the ones you'd planned to hold forever, are showing huge losses, caused by "panic selling." And for a while, the sellers will congratulate themselves. They "only" lost 30 percent, and now they can't lose more. But they can't make more either, unless they're better at picking bottoms than tops.

From 1980 to 2000, arguably the best two decades of the past century for the stock market, if you missed out on just the best 15 out of those 240 months, your total return was just slightly higher than a money market fund. That's the argument for younger investors: Keep on investing the same monthly amount in your retirement plan. Your regular $300 dollar monthly investment will now buy many more shares -- putting you in better shape to profit when the market does rally.

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