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Stock market at pre-crisis levels, but many still on sidelines

Arthur Walsh of Bedford has slowly been reinvesting in the stock market since cashing out in 2008,

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Arthur Walsh of Bedford has slowly been reinvesting in the stock market since cashing out in 2008,

Stock markets have surged to near five-year highs, thanks to a strong 2012 for investors followed by a rousing January. So where’s the party?

The Dow Jones industrial average is flirting with 14,000, having bounced back from the darkest days of the financial crisis. US stocks have doubled in value since March 2009, meaning many Americans have at least recovered their losses from that period. But for a bull market of this scale, there’s a distinct lack of euphoria out there.

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“I don’t think anyone is cheering yet,’’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “People want to see the market move even higher before they feel comfortable that this is really wealth — something they can count on in the future, and that they can spend it.”

Many people missed the rally of 2012, or did not participate in it fully, because they remained so jarred by the market’s massive drops four years ago that they became more conservative in their ­investments. Some reduced their stock holdings, and others cashed out of the stock market entirely.

Even as the market and the economy started to rebound strongly last year, investors kept pulling billions of dollars out of stock funds and pouring them into bond funds, according to the Investment Company Institute, a Washington trade group that tracks mutual fund flows. The tide did not turn until recent weeks, when investors finally seemed to realize the market was stretching toward a new high.

“It’s been a stealth bull market,’’ said Raj Sharma, a private wealth adviser for Merrill Lynch in Boston. It’s the first one he can recall that largely snuck up on investors. “Then the anxiety kicks in and people say, ‘My goodness, am I missing something?’ ”

It was easy to miss the rising stock market, often lost in a host of global economic worries. Headlines and political banter about the fiscal cliff, high unemployment, and the European debt crisis have often overshadowed the fact that companies have quietly been amassing big profits, and their stocks have been soaring.

Despite all the negative news, Putnam Investments chief executive Robert L. Reynolds said, “If you’d invested on Jan.1, 2009, at the end of 2012, you would have doubled your money. I think a lot of people missed that.”

Of course, that’s if you’d had money waiting to invest. The typical retirement investor with a 401(k) plan first saw savings collapse by half. So the big rally has most feeling like they have only gotten back to even.

The Dow hit its record high of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007, slumped to 6,547 by March 9, 2009, and closed Wednesday at 13,986.52.

An investor who put $10,000 into the Dow index on the day of the 2007 high and held on would be sitting on $11,463.70 today, thanks mostly to dividends.

Not the stuff of celebrations.

Arthur Walsh, 70, an electrical engineer from Bedford who retired last year, relies on his retirement plans and Social Security to support himself and his wife. In 2008, when the financial crisis was heating up, he moved all his money into cash.

He has slowly gotten back into the market since, but many people haven’t, he said.

“The people who did sell felt good about it. But now they’re still on the sidelines,’’ Walsh said. Having the Dow back around 14,000 has not been life-changing, Walsh said. “The market does not correlate well to people’s well-being,’’ he said.

Indeed, even though corporate earnings have surged, the unemployment rate is still stubbornly at 7.9 percent. Many Americans are still worried about finding or keeping a job and are struggling to make ends meet, having had no meaningful increase in pay in several years.

The Federal Reserve has pledged to help get the jobless rate down, mainly by buying up securities. That strategy has helped push up the prices of some assets, including stocks. And the respite from Congress’s fiscal cliff tax-and-spending debate has given stocks a brisk 6 percent lift so far this year.

Yet the so-called wealth effect that historically occurs when markets rise vigorously seems muted. The housing market is slowly improving, and car sales are picking up, but consumers are cautious. While a dollar increase in stock wealth typically translates into 3 or 4 cents of consumer spending, according to Zandi, the economist, it is producing only about a penny of spending.

Even wealthy Americans are not yet spending at pre-crisis levels, Zandi said: “I don’t think high-net- worth households are popping champagne corks or spending with gusto.”

After a 22 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index over the past 13 months, even some professional investors fear at least a temporary pullback. State Street Corp., the big Boston investment and financial services firm, recently announced 630 layoffs and predicted the market would rise only 5 percent all year.

“People are making money, but it’s amazing that there’s still so much negative sentiment around,’’ said Merrill’s Sharma. “Still, people are feeling bad.”

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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