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One man's dreary is another's divine. (Flip Side).

This past summer, an article in The Wall Street Journal bluntly told investors to stop expecting the stock market to finance their retirements. With the market approaching free-fall, after the phantom recovery of early 2002, the customarily optimistic Journal at long last advised its readers: "Don't Think the Market Will Pump Up Your Nest Egg; You'd Better Start Saving."

Since the Journal had been one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for dollar-cost averaging and pumping spare cash into index funds during the last, long-lamented bull market, this marked a bit of a sea change. People who had been led to believe that their failure to participate in the great boom of the '90s would result in their eating dog food when they finally retired were now being told to start salting away as much money as they could because they could not depend on Wall Street to bail them out.

The most telling section of the Journal's story ran like this:

"As of April, investors expected stocks to deliver 18 percent annually over the next 10 years. The reality is likely to be far grimmer. Stock investors, I suspect, will be lucky to earn 7 percent or 8 percent annually in the years ahead. What to do? Saving more each year will help compensate for such dreary returns."

The key word here is "dreary." I know that over the course of recent American history, the idea of earning a mere 8 percent on one's money has often seemed somewhat lackluster. But in the current environment, the number "8" has come to assume gargantuan proportions. In a period when investors have been forced to deal with numbers like -23 percent, -34 percent, -61 percent and the perennial favorite 0 percent, an 8 percent return seems positively huge. If I could lock in an 8 percent return on all my investments, I'd be set for life.

The gold rush atmosphere of recent years has totally skewed the American public's idea of what this or that number represents. So here's a refresher course: An 8 percent return on investment is more than four times what you can earn in a money market account. No, it does not compare with the returns investors used to routinely get from their positions in Cisco and back in 1996-99, but those days are long gone. Eight percent, as luck would have it, is very close to the historical annual average return for the stock market. Far from being "dreary," it is the magic number that keeps this economy operating.

At the time the Journal article appeared, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at about 9,600. In the weeks after it appeared, the Dow dropped another 10 percent. It was almost as if millions of investors had read the article, digested its contents, were shocked at the prospect of getting a "dreary" 8 percent return on their money and bailed out entirely. Until the market returned to the dizzying performances of the mid-to-late '90s, they wanted no part of it.

Where will this all end? Happily, the public has a short memory. It has forgotten the astoundingly high interest rates of the Jimmy Carter era, the astonishing yields on junk bonds back in the Drexel Burnham Lambert years, the stagnant market between 1966 and 1982--and soon it will forget all this. In the fullness of time, thanks to a barrage of emergency pedagogy from the financial press, it will stop thinking of 8 percent as a dreary return on one s investment, and start viewing this number as entirely respectable.

The Journal itself can help to bring this about by a more judicious use of terminology. It can start by referring to an 8 percent return as "less-than-stellar," then gradually substitute the word "decent," then move on to "perfectly adequate" before finally reaching an adjectival apotheosis of sorts with the term "splendid." I for one would welcome a return to an era where an 8 percent return was viewed as satisfactory; at this point, with my portfolio sunk in the lower depths, I might settle for 6 percent. Or 5. Or 3.2. Which just goes to show that one man's ceiling is another man's floor--and one man's "dreary" is another man's "divine."

Joe Queenan ( is CE's longest-running columnist and author of The Malcontents: The Best Bitter, Cynical, and Satirical Writing in the World (Running Press, September 2002).
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Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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