Skip to main content

While some on Wall Street have embraced the concept of a new bull market, Main Street isn't ready to celebrate.

Despite seven weeks of gains and a 20% rally on the

S&P 500

, retail investors were only slightly more optimistic in November than they were during the prior month, when confidence plunged to an all-time low, according to the latest poll by UBS Warburg and The Gallup Organization.

"There's still a fair dose of skepticism about the rally," said Charles White, a portfolio manager at Avatar Investors.

For many professional portfolio managers, the recent gains have been a huge blessing, allowing them to catch up to their benchmarks for the year. But for the average long-term retail investor, the gains haven't done much to boost confidence.

The Index of Investor Optimism rose to 41 in November, up from 29 in October, but that's still the second-lowest reading in the survey's six-year history and well below levels seen earlier in the year. Back in March, the index stood at 121.

"Even though the QQQs are up 30%, they're off 75% from their highs, so the people in it for the long term are still way down," said Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James. "I think it's too late to be a bear and too early to be a bull. We're in a neutral pattern, and we'll probably trade sideways for a long time."

Still Hesitant

According to the UBS Warburg/Gallup poll, half of the respondents said now is a good time to invest -- the second-lowest level on record. In addition, more investors said they view bonds as a better investment than stocks.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

"The steadily increasing stock market averages are not reflective of similar increases in investor optimism," said Dennis Jacobe, director of research at The Gallup Organization. "Nor does it seem that they portend increased holiday spending among investors and consumers in the weeks ahead."

While nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they would spend the same this Christmas as they did last year, one in four said they would spend less, while just 10% said they'd increase spending.

For the next six months, 62% said their level of spending would remain the same, while 22% expect to reduce their expenditures and 16% said they would spend more.

A study by economist Lawrence Klein of the University of Pennsylvania showed the UBS Warburg/Gallup poll is statistically better at predicting spending patterns than the more established consumer confidence indexes. Still, the odds that any trend identified in the survey actually will materialize stand at just slightly more than 50%, according to Klein.

Merit Questioned

Salomon Smith Barney equity analyst Tobias Levkovich said he treats the survey as a contrarian indicator, noting that investor optimism was at a high in January 2000, right before the market peaked.

"Retail investors tend to be hopelessly out of synch with the trends," he said. "In 1974, for example, individual investors continued to sell mutual funds for five to six years after the market bottomed."

Levkovich believes the seven-week rally should continue through the end of the year, but he doesn't believe that stocks have yet embarked on a new bull market, saying investors are still in "neutral territory."

Expectations for short-term returns over the next 12 months inched up to 8.5% from 8.1% last month, according to the poll. But novice investors, or those with under five years of experience, continue to expect a 15% rate of return on their portfolio.

Meanwhile, some 42% of investors believe the economy is experiencing a slowdown and 23% still feel the economy is in a recession. Around 43% are optimistic about the economy over the next six months and 30% feel that a recovery is under way.

"Maybe this is just one of those times when the professional investors on Wall Street who drive the equity market averages know more than the average investor/consumer on Main Street -- or maybe not," Jacobe said.