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Amateur Investors Rode the Bull Up. Now the Bear Looms.

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Tens of millions of amateur investors got into the stock market in the course of the pandemic — some gingerly, some aggressively, some determined to show Wall Street bigwigs a lesson — and almost couldn’t help but earn cash, riding a bull marketplace for the higher a part of two years.

Now they could should wrestle with a bear.

“It definitely isn’t as easy to trade on this market,” said Shelley Hellmann, a 47-year-old former optometrist in Texas who began actively investing in April 2020 while isolating from her family.

Tracking stock movements on an iPad Mini in her bedroom, she banked big gains because the market soared. Inside a few months, she was considering making day trading a full-time gig. But because the S&P 500 peaked on Jan. 3, profits have been harder to come back by.

“Sometimes I’m glad to not be red for the yr,” she said.

Five months of bumpy declines have put the S&P 500 on the precipice of a bear market: A drop of 20 percent or more from its most up-to-date high, which is taken into account a psychological marker of investors’ dimmed view of the economy. With a fall of 0.6 percent on Thursday — on the heels of the market’s worst day in nearly two years — the index is down nearly 19 percent from its peak on Jan. 3.

In response, lots of the estimated 20 million amateurs who began trading prior to now two years — whether bored sports bettors or meme-stock aficionados who piled into GameStop — have tapped the brakes, or scrambled to shuffle their portfolios into more defensive positions.

S&P Global Market Intelligence, which analyzed April data from Charles Schwab and Interactive Brokers, said retail trading activity was down 20 percent compared with the meme-stock frenzy of January and February 2021. Popular retail brokerages report fewer lively users: Robinhood, the selection of many amateurs who jumped in early within the pandemic, said last month that it had 15.9 million lively users in March, down 10 percent from a yr earlier and off 8 percent from the top of last yr.

The recent decline, the corporate said, was tied to “users with lower balances, who’re engaging less in the present market environment.”

The mood has even cooled on Reddit forums like WallStreetBets. In the warmth of the rising market, invincible traders congregated there to joke that stocks only went up. However the irrational exuberance has given solution to darker humor: One recent post included a picture of the grim reaper slaying low rates of interest and stock market bulls.

Jonathan Colon got out because the market began its retreat. He put $3,000 right into a Robinhood account last June and sold all the pieces early this yr as stocks slid in January. He cashed out with a $100 loss.

“It was like while you get smacked on the hand just a few times as a child and also you learn to not go here or there,” he said.

Mr. Colon, 33, who will graduate from Brooklyn College this month with a finance degree, was inspired to speculate by a stock market competition that one among his professors offered as extra credit in March of last yr. Wheeling and dealing a $1 million mock portfolio, he sought out corporations that appeared to have been sold off too aggressively, making them low-cost buys, or those who traded above their usual range, making them candidates for a brief sale.

A couple of months later, he began investing his own money, but struggled to duplicate the returns of his mock portfolio. Certain stocks were unavailable for shorting, for instance, and trading so incessantly was expensive. Although there have been no commissions to pay, the bid-ask spread — the small difference between the best price a buyer is willing to pay and the bottom a seller is willing to simply accept — kept costing him fractions that added up.

By January, a few of his classes had resumed in person, and with them his onerous commute from the Bronx. As an alternative of trading for an hour every morning, he reduce to twice every week. The market was also becoming quite a bit choppier, and it was increasingly difficult to carry his positions. He had all the time used stop-loss orders — instructions to sell when a stock dropped to a certain price — to stop disastrous declines. But with constant drops, he kept getting pushed out of his trades.

“Just while you think it wouldn’t go lower, it might,” he said. With less time on his hands and more volatility available in the market, he sold all the pieces “for safety purposes,” he said.

Though the stampede to open latest brokerage accounts has abated, retail trading activity stays well above prepandemic levels — a testament to the sheer number of people that took up stock trading because the coronavirus upended normal life. Retail brokerages saw two to 3 times as many account openings in 2020 compared with the yr before — a pace that accelerated through the primary half of 2021, in accordance with estimates by JMP Securities.

Thomas Mason, a senior research analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, said that despite the market’s recent tumbles, retail traders aren’t necessarily panicking. “They appear to be reallocating, shifting out of high-risk growth stocks into less dangerous investments,” he said.

Even when their tastes have modified, they’re a slice of the trading population that’s still showing an appetite: As of the top of April, TD Ameritrade, a part of Charles Schwab, said its retail customers were still buying more stocks than they were selling, in accordance with its Investor Movement Index, which measures retail investors’ behavior and sentiment, based on a sample of accounts that accomplished trades prior to now month. Their interests have been shifting toward less volatile names and more stable holdings like shorter-term bonds, the firm said.

Ms. Hellmann, who began actively trading within the early days of the pandemic, said she was sticking with it, learning more and refining her approach as she goes along.

She often rises at 3 a.m. and activates CNBC to start plotting her strategy for the day, which involves studying stocks’ price movements, a process she in comparison with learning to catch a softball — watching its arc, then attempting to determine the physics of where it should land. “That’s what I’m doing with price and volume,” she said.

Long a buy-and-hold investor, she began with roughly $50,000 — money that got here from shares of ConocoPhillips that she inherited in 2014 after the death of her grandfather, who had been a propane salesman. Her approach has grown increasingly complex over the past two years: Last fall, she took a big position in an exchange-traded fund that bets against the worth of natural gas — which has gone up as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roiled energy markets.

“The war causing natural gas to spike up at a time when it seasonally comes down didn’t help me much,” she said.

Even so, she’s greater than quintupled her money since early 2020, riding the strength of a rally that has the S&P 500 up nearly 80 percent because it bottomed out in March 2020, even with its recent fall.

Experiencing losses after a period of gains might be instructive, said Dan Egan, vice chairman of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, which builds and manages diversified portfolios of low-cost funds and provides financial planning services.

“If you have got an excellent initial experience with investing, you see this is a component of it, it should be OK,” he said. “We get bumps and bruises that it’s good to learn what pain looks like,” he said.

Eric Lipchus, 40, has felt loads of pain in his nearly 20 years of full-time day trading — he owned options on Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that imploded in the course of the financial crisis of 2008-9. Before that, he had watched his older brother and father dabble within the markets in the course of the dot-com boom and bust.

“I even have been on a roller coaster,” he said. “I’m making OK money this yr nevertheless it’s been up and it’s been down. It looks as if it may very well be a troublesome yr — not as much upside as in previous years.”

Difficult conditions like investors are actually facing can get stressful in a rush, Mr. Lipchus said. Immediately, he’s keeping half his portfolio in money — and is taking a fishing trip to the Thousand Islands in a few weeks to clear his head.

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