Many analysts now worry that the United States may sink into a lost decade -- i.e., 10 or more years of financial doldrums, like Japan endured in the 1990s.

I've got news for them: We're already there.

I started investing in earnest right around the beginning of 1999, a little more than a year before the tech bubble peaked. Even after Wall Street's recent rally, and even knowing that some stocks have won big in the interim, I knew that these last 10 years hadn't been stellar, marketwise.

But I was shocked when I actually looked at the numbers. The S&P 500 is 27% lower than it was on Jan. 1, 1999.

In hindsight, I would have been much, much better off putting my money in a savings (or even a checking) account. That lost decade? It's already happened.

When safe wasn't safe
We expect steep losses from the housing-bubble refugees -- the banks, the homebuilders, and the subprime dabblers like AIG and General Electric. But it's absolutely devastating to see some of the stock price drops posted by relatively healthy and uninvolved companies:


Stock Price Drop since 1/1/1999

Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB)


Verizon (NYSE:VZ)




Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS)




Merck (NYSE:MRK)


Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)


Dupont (NYSE:DD)






Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Dividends are excluded.

Sure, Microsoft and some of the others were riding especially high on the tech bubble, but freakin' Campbell Soup is down 49%! And you know America's taking a beating when Barbie and Disney are down significantly over a decade's time.  

The bright side
Fortunately, the big picture's not as bad as these scary stock plunges might imply.

First of all, they exclude dividends, which cushion some of the pain -- so long as they aren't cut.

There's also the beauty of dollar-cost averaging. If, like me, you've been putting money into the stock market consistently, you've put in money during the frothy periods (like January 1999), but also when the market has been beaten down -- and the S&P 500 is up 30% since then.

I'd love to say that this rally is sustainable, but it's very possible that the stock market could drop further -- perhaps even lower than those March lows.

Still, the economy (and the stock market) will eventually get better. The worst thing you can do, besides yanking your money out entirely, is to add new money in good times, but stop adding new money when prices drop. If you do, you're throwing away the only silver lining to this financial crisis -- cheaper entry points on the bargains of the next 10 years.

The bargain candidates
Remember, a lower price doesn't mean that a company's stock is cheap.

For example, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T all shred roughly half their market value over the last decade, now trading at low double-digit earnings multiples. Yet they're not screaming buys. They face cutthroat competition from each other for your bundling dollar, resulting in heavy capital spending just to keep up -- with no assurance that new technologies won't destroy their returns on investment.

In addition to having been beaten down by the bear market, bargains that will serve you well for the next 10 years will have strong financials, provide essential goods and services, and have few competitive threats.

Right now, I'm more intrigued by a company that wasn't even public back in 1999 than I am by the 10 companies in the table we looked at earlier. It may not be the next Microsoft, but Nasdaq OMX is a long-term play on investing itself. It's got a moderate amount of debt, but good coverage ratios. On further dips, its value proposition gets really interesting.

We've largely lost the gains of the last 10 years, but I'm happy to be getting lower prices with the advantage of an extra 10 years of experience. Together, those two advantages could make the next 10 years very different.

Fool founders Tom and David Gardner are licking their chops, too. They seek out the best stocks the market has to offer in their Motley Fool Stock Advisor investing service -- and they're currently recommending 10 stocks for new money now that are more like Nasdaq than AT&T or Comcast. You can see all of them by clicking here for a free 30-day trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

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Anand Chokkavelu found out that Mom and apple pie are both down 32% since 1999. He owns shares of Walt Disney and Microsoft. Walt Disney is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Walt Disney, Microsoft, and Nasdaq are Inside Value recommendations. The Fool wrote puts on OMX Group and has a disclosure policy.