Check Your TSP: Worst August for Stocks Since 2001

Thrift Savings Plan investors are undoubtedly disappointed with the returns in the TSP funds in August and so far in 2010. Stocks are down for the month–at a rate not seen since August 2001.

August is usually a positive month for stocks.

Stocks often decline in September as companies begin to issue warnings ahead of third-quarter results and mutual-fund managers get more work after the light volume in stock trading that is typical of the summer months. Since 1928, September has posted by far the worst results of any month, with the S&P index (the index on which the TSP’s C fund is based) losing an average of 1.2%.

Back in August 2001, the C fund dropped 6.27%. The S fund went down 4.32% and the I fund declined 2.58%. In August 2010, the C fund dropped 4.51%; the S fund went down 5.59% and the I fund dropped 3.14%.

To put these returns in a longer-term perspective, this means that the C fund is down 4.62% for the year; the S fund is up 0.21% for the year; and the I fund is down 7.80% for the year. On a brighter note, the F fund has a positive return of 7.89% for the year and the G fund is up 2.06% in 2010.

The problem with the stock market is continued concerns about the nation’s economy. Investors are jittery with concerns about a “double-dip” recession; the amount of debt for the federal government (the federal government’s debt has soared more than $4 trillion in the past three years, to something in the range of $13.3 trillion); and the fact that the jobless rate has not declined. With the August unemployment number that was announced today up to 9.6%, the jobless rate will have been above 9% for
16 straight months. This means the U.S. is mired in the longest such
stretch of 9%-plus joblessness in more than a quarter of a century. 

That makes investors nervous and the results are showing up in the stock market returns.

As you might expect, predictions by stock market analysts about the short term future of the stock market vary widely. Since 2000, we have experienced two significant bear markets. The first one, from 2000 to 2002, deflated the speculative mania pumped up by the arrival of the Internet. Of course, the attacks on 9/11 did not help matters either. The second, and more sinister, bear market his us from 2007–2009. When share prices began to fall in 2007, many analysts assumed the market would hold up better than it did. Despite the predictions, excessive debt—mortgage debt in particular—was the big factor driving the market down.

By 2012, Uncle Sam will face a fiscal crunch as the number of baby boomers reaching 65 (the age for Medicare eligibility) spikes. 

But prior to 2012, some are predicting more growth in the stock market as the financial situation in Europe seems more stable than it did earlier this year. The November election may have an impact on stock returns also.

The reality is that there is less certainty than usual in the stock market as a result of the weak economy and political uncertainty about taxes, actions that may (or may not) be taken by the federal government before or after the November elections. Uncertainty often leads companies to hold off on expansion, additional investment in business and hiring new employees.

The result has been a strong bond market (see the F fund results so far in 2010) but a weak stock market so far in 2010. Markets anticipate the future, or at least they try to do so, and an infusion of optimism could create a sudden surge in the market.

Money Moves by TSP Investors

What do TSP investors think?

TSP investors transferred millions of their dollars into the G and F funds in July and withdrew millions from the C, S and I funds. That probably reflects a change of opinion among these investors about the short term direction of the market. TSP investors withdrew more than $1.3 billion from the G fund in March and another $1.3 billion from the G fund in April. These investors started putting money back into the G fund in May (more than $3.2 billion).

The result: You pay your money and take your chances.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47