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Lessons From the Past 3 Years

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This Saturday marks the third anniversary of the low-water mark in the stock market meltdown during the financial crisis. As painful as that period was, it was definitely a learning experience -- and if you've been fortunate, you've probably learned a lot from the last three years since then as well.

Where we've been
Three years ago, the financial system seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Everything from banks and insurance companies to automakers and money market mutual funds had required some form of financial bailout or guarantee to try to get the mechanisms of finance working smoothly again.

Meanwhile, a stock market that was already bemoaning the loss of half a decade's worth of gains couldn't figure out where the bottom of the market was. With gargantuan losses from the financial sector, valuation measures for the broad market like P/E ratios became virtually meaningless, and many foresaw further declines even from Dow 6,500.

Of course, with perfect hindsight, we know that was overly pessimistic. Now, the broad market has doubled from its 2009 lows. Many individual stocks have done far better than that, having dodged what could have been death blows during the financial crisis. Yet even now, many individual investors have no confidence in the stock market, seeing it as a rigged game and another example of Wall Street domination of the financial system.

Where we're going
No one knows what'll happen next for stocks. Some believe that after having come so far so quickly, we're long overdue for a correction that will take most stocks lower. Others point to rising corporate earnings as a sign that even after the big run, valuations are still attractive enough to support further gains.

But the true lessons of the market meltdown and the recovery that followed it come from one basic fact: Markets are always in flux, and you have to be flexible in order to roll with the punches and succeed in the long run.

The tenacity of markets
One lesson that's come home to just about everyone is that markets can keep going up or down far longer than you'd think possible. Like many, I've long been convinced that interest rates on bonds are too low and that a future increase is inevitable. When that happens, those who've bought long-term bonds at low rates will suffer big capital losses.

Yet low rates persist, and it looks like they'll be around for quite a while to come. That's great news for some industries. Mortgage REITs Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY  ) and American Capital Agency (Nasdaq: AGNC  ) are in a better position to thrive as a result of low rates, although they also face challenges from ongoing pressures in the mortgage-loan market. But for savers and those who depend on interest income from their portfolios, low rates have forced them into the uncomfortable position of deciding which type of risk to take on to enhance their returns.

History repeats
No matter how many times crazy behavior smacks down a group of investors, people seem doomed to repeat it.

You'd think that the Internet boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s would have taught everyone about the pitfalls of mania-based investing. Yet in recent years, first Chinese Internet stocks and then social media stocks have exhibited some of the same signs of froth.

As with the original Internet boom, there are legitimate players. Among Chinese Internet stocks, Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, not just within China but internationally as well. In social media, LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD  ) may have a ridiculously high valuation, but at least it's profitable -- as is Facebook.

But as with the insert-name-here-dot-com companies more than a decade ago, a host of follow-on offerings appear doomed from the start. Renren (NYSE: RENN  ) has lost nearly three-quarters of its value from its IPO, and while revenue growth has been strong, figuring out how to generate profit will be an ongoing challenge for the company. Among narrowly focused social media companies, a few will succeed, but many more will fail.

What about you?
Those are just two of the lessons I've learned from the markets since 2009. But what about you? Share your experience by leaving a comment below and tell us what you've learned from the market's recovery.

Learning painful lessons is an essential part of financial success. Let us share our experience with you on how to pinpoint promising investments and avoid unnecessary traps. The Motley Fool's latest special report on retirement highlights three promising stock picks for retirement investors and includes more information on putting together a top portfolio. It's absolutely free but only for a limited time, so read it today while it's still available.

Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger never stops learning. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of LinkedIn, Annaly Capital Management, and Baidu. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy is a great teacher.

Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2012, at 3:29 PM, fun2bretired wrote:

    I think says it all for me and Chinese market.

    First Person: I Lost My Shirt in China, but How I Kept My Pants

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2012, at 8:51 PM, MyPortfolioGuide wrote:

    I think what I've learned is that most people miss the boat at key inflection points. Whether one is early or late they should not watch the same movie over again and expect a different ending:

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2012, at 10:20 PM, TempoAllegro wrote:

    I've learned to take financial predictions with a grain of salt.

    I've learned the hard way not to take hot tips on stocks, especially from close relatives.

    I've learned that a lot of small financial choices we make add up to big money over just a few years.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2012, at 11:09 PM, Shawnerz wrote:

    "Everything from banks and insurance companies to automakers and money market mutual funds had required some form of financial bailout or guarantee to try to get the mechanisms of finance working smoothly again."


    Don't forget that back in 2009, The Motley Fool received a government bailout as well. ;-)

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2012, at 11:50 PM, Millsteen wrote:

    When there's manic selling and stocks go on sale, like three years ago, it's time to go on a shopping spree.

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2012, at 12:18 AM, awallejr wrote:

    Don't listen to the bears every year. They will be wrong more often than right. Recessions will continue to happen, so prepare for them but don't be scared away from investing. Create income streams from your investments and continue to reinvest that income.

  • Report this Comment On March 09, 2012, at 9:17 PM, TMFGalagan wrote:

    @Shawnerz -

    Thanks for reminding me! April Fool's is comin' up again, you know. :)


    dan (TMF Galagan)

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2012, at 10:53 PM, FreedomTrader1 wrote:

    This sounds simplistic, but do your research to find best in class companies and build your positions wisely: don't assume you are buying at the bottom Analyze market factors that are affecting your positions..

    When good companies go on sale, incrementally increase your positions in same. Be mindful that different stocks react to earnings misses and beats differently. When an issue has had a long run, take some profits.

    Make investing a lifelong activity and your dilligence will pay off.


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