What will it take to get stock-market investors back in the black?
That's a trick question. Many, if not most, investors are in the black, despite the big 2000-2002 bear market from which the major indexes have yet to fully recover.
That's because the downturn didn't wipe out all the gains those investors made on money invested in the 1990s. And, of course, stocks have done just great in the past year, so investments made during the bear market have paid handsome returns.
But it's natural to focus on what we've lost since the market peaks.
The Dow Jones industrial average is still about 11 percent below its peak, set on Jan. 14, 2000. The Standard & Poor's 500 is 26 percent below its high of March 24, 2000.
And the biggest loser, the Nasdaq Composite, is still a whopping 60 percent below its March 10, 2000, record.
What would returns have to average to get us back to the top in, say, three more years?
For the Dow: about 4 percent a year.
The S&P 500: about 10 percent a year.
The Nasdaq: About 36 percent a year.
Growing corporate earnings could push the first two indexes to new records in that time, but only another bubble could carry the Nasdaq that high.
Here's a question that I recently received:
"I have a lot of cash earning almost no interest in the bank, and I'm thinking of using it to pay off my mortgage. Would this make sense? The house is worth about $400,000 and the mortgage balance is $115,000, with 25 years to go at 6.75 percent."
Here's my answer:
I've always liked the idea of paying mortgages off early, though it's not necessarily the most profitable way to use your money. For most people, the process means adding a little extra each month to reduce principal -- the remaining balance. This has a snowball effect that can slash the total interest paid over the loan's life.
Paying the loan off at once would have the same effect, saving you about $123,000 in interest you'd otherwise pay during the next 25 years.
Of course, your $115,000 could be put to work in some other way. If you could find an investment with an annual return of more than 6.75 percent, you'd make more than you'd save in interest by paying off the mortgage.
Keep in mind, though, that the 6.75 percent "return" from the mortgage payoff is guaranteed. It's like getting 6.75 percent in a bank account.
These days you can't get that high a return on a safe investment. You might well do better in stocks or stock mutual funds, but you'd have to shoulder a lot more risk to do so.
Look at the big picture. If you already have lots of growth-oriented investments in the stock market, paying off the mortgage might serve as one of your safer, more conservative investments, like bonds, bank accounts and money market funds.
There is a disadvantage to putting a lot of money into your home: It's hard to get it back out. You'd have to sell the home, refinance or take out a home equity loan. The second two options would mean paying interest on money that's now earning interest.
Also, I'd consider refinancing instead. You should be able to find a new mortgage that is a full percentage point below the 6.75 percent you're paying now.
The key issue in refinancing: Will you have the new mortgage long enough for its lower monthly payments to make up for the refinancing fees?
Since refinancing is an option, use the going mortgage rate of about 5.75 percent as the investment return you'd make by paying off the mortgage, rather than the 6.75 percent you're paying now. The lower figure is still a pretty good return on a guaranteed investment these days.
Paying off the mortgage would reduce your cost of living. That could be nice if you lose a job or have some other financial setback.
Of course, the mortgage payoff would take a big chunk of cash you might want to have in an emergency.