The stock market has gained an average 9.6% a year since 1926, according to Chicago's Ibbotson Associates, not a bit of which has been earned in the past decade.
Nevertheless, many investors count on earning at least that much to reach their retirement goals. Can you still earn 9.6%? Possibly. We suggest a few investments that will get you there — but in this uncertain world, we can't offer any guarantees.
"Reversion to the mean" is a frequently used phrase which means, basically, that the stock market's returns tend to gravitate toward a long-term average. It's a theory that has a few holes in it, obviously.
For one thing, the mean itself is a moving target. From 1926 through 1999, for example, large-company stocks returned an average 11.35%, including reinvested dividends. The difference between the two figures — 1.75 percentage points a year — is enormous. Invest $10,000 at 11.1% a year for 30 years, and you'll have $252,000 in your account at the end of the period. If you get 9.6%, you'll have $156,000.
And as the Securities and Exchange Commission will be glad to remind you, past performance is no guarantee of future gains. Just because large-company stocks have gained an average 9.6% a year since 1926 is no reason that they will do the same during the next 82 years.
Actually, the past 20 years haven't done much heavy lifting. From the end of November 1988 through November 2008, the S&P 500-stock index has gained an average 8.5%, vs. 9.4% for long-term government bonds. (International stocks have fared even worse: The Morgan Stanley Europe, Australasia and Far East Index has gained an average 3.2% a year.)
Despite all the dismal recent returns, however, you'd probably like your investments to earn more than 2.19%, which is what ultrasafe 10-year Treasury notes currently yield. How can you get a 9.6% return or better?
•Pay off credit cards. Many cards currently charge 20% to 30% a year, which, in technical financial terms, is called "obscene." Repaying a card that charges 20% is the rough equivalent of earning 20%. Think of each dollar you pay off as a tear rolling down the cheek of a credit card company CEO.
If you have a big balance and $100 extra a month to pay down your credit cards, consider putting $50 into savings and $50 extra toward your cards. You probably have high credit card balances because you didn't have enough savings. By socking money into savings, you won't have to reach for your credit card when you see smoke curling up from your laptop.
•Invest in your 401(k) to the company match. Never walk away from free money. If you have a 401(k) savings plan and the company matches your contribution, be sure to contribute up to the match. A 50% match is a 50% gain.
OK, those two are layups. Here are a few trickier ones:
•Consider buying an investment-grade corporate bond. By some measures, corporate bonds have been clobbered even more than stocks. Bonds are long-term IOUs, and are backed only by the company issuing them. A Ford bond maturing in October 2009, for example, recently sold for about 71 cents on the dollar. Should the company be around by next Halloween, an investor will have earned about 54%, including principal and interest.