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Wall Street hits Main Street

September 20, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Potomac Towers, 11 West Baltimore Street, Hagerstown.

New York Stock Exchange, 11 Wall Street, New York City.

A lot of distance - 238 miles, in fact - between them, but for Flo Miles, observing this past week's dramatic financial turmoil on the NYSE, not far enough.

"I'm not worried about myself because I'm so old, but I worry about my children and my grandchildren," said the Potomac Towers senior citizen. "... It makes me think about the Great Depression."

Monday's 504-point drop of the Dow Jones industrial average, followed by Tuesday's 141-point rise, Wednesday's 449-point fall, Thursday's 410-point climb and Friday's 368-point increase no doubt had a lot of people wondering about the same.

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But local investment advisers advised caution - certainly not panic or hasty action.

"The worst thing to do now is to sell out," said Andrew Serafini of Serafini Financial Services Inc. in Hagerstown. "... This is a test for people to say, 'Have I allocated too much into equities?' But if I have a longer-term perspective, these are cycles to expect."

Brendan Fitzsimmons, senior vice president and manager of the Hagerstown branch of Ferris, Baker Watts LLC, said the best advice for anyone worrying about the market's gyrations is to seek out professional financial advice.

"In these types of environments, when you're thinking about your 401(k) or your kids' college fund, the best thing to do is to get some advice," Fitzsimmons said. "If you don't have a plan for these types of environments then you should get one."

The week's roller-coaster ride lurched out the starting gate last weekend when Merrill Lynch, the world's largest brokerage, sold itself to Bank of America Corp. in a last-ditch effort to avoid failure. Monday's news that investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. had filed for bankruptcy protection sent the Dow tumbling for its biggest loss since its drop following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Dow rose Tuesday after the Federal Reserve decided to leave interest rates unchanged. The plunge began anew Wednesday, when the federal government announced an $85 billion bailout of insurance industry giant American International Group Inc.

The Dow soared Thursday and Friday with the news of a government rescue plan.

The series of cliffhangers underscores questions surrounding such financial giants, raising investor concerns.

All of this comes home to Main Street as people see their investment portfolios - whether for retirement, education or other forms of nest eggs - lose value.

Settling emotions

As the week unfolded, more and more clients began jangling the phones at both Serafini and Ferris, Baker Watts.

Some clients wanted to sell their stocks right away, but their alarm lessened as they began to talk through the strengths of their long-term investment plans, Serafini said.

"They've now settled their emotions," and put this week's gyrations into the perspective of the longer terms of their plans, he said. "If I've been in (the market) the last couple of years, I've now given up some of what I gained, but the value is still higher than what it was."

Important to remember is that over the years, the market will have its ups and downs, but the general trend is up, Serafini said. "In 2000, we had Y2K (fears). And then, you have September 11th (2001) on top of that ... We've averaged 17 percent (growth) a year since March 2003.

"So you're seeing that we've had tremendous growth," Serafini said. "Whatever precipitates these things from time to time, it's a cycle. The market recovers very sharply."

Fitzsimmons said there is no single strategy for everyone.

"There is no cookie-cutter approach," he said. "It all depends on a person's particular circumstance, both personal and financial."

But what if you were planning to retire soon - hasn't this downswing hurt your investments so much that now you'll have to work longer?

"I don't necessarily think that is the case," Fitzsimmons said. "If you have a 3-year-old child and you're saving for college, you have 15 years (more to invest). There's a situation where you probably don't want to make any rash decisions.

"Conversely, if you're 60 years old and want to retire in five years, you don't want to make any rash decisions, but it may be more important for you to talk to people and find out, 'Do I want to modify my plan?'"

Fitzsimmons said selling stocks might be best for people who both plan to retire soon and "are scared to death," but, in general, it's not an action he would advise.

"You don't want to tell people 'sell' because inflation is still a significant factor in our lives," he said. "So one of the best ways to hedge against inflation, for those of us looking at our 401(k), is exposure to the equity market.

"That degree that you want to be exposed is what you want to talk to somebody about. If you're 65 and you're looking at living until 85, that money has to last and grow for 20 years."

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