Portfolio > Economy & Markets > Stocks

Penny Arcade

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Visiting the financial stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average is like whistling past a graveyard. You don’t want to look too closely–Oh the horror of it!–for fear that some of the inhabitants might reach out, grab hold of you and keep you in thrall forever.

This scenario is not so far-fetched. Some of these financial stocks are zombies–living dead being kept alive by life support. And, indeed, we are footing the bill for that life support and it is keeping us in thrall.

A gander at the closing prices of some of these stocks on March 9 showed that Bank of America was at 3.75; Citigroup at 1.05; American Express at 10.64; JPMorgan Chase at 15.90; and General Electric at 7.41. (I’m including GE because of its huge GE Capital arm, about which investors have many questions.)

To give you an idea of how far the mighty have fallen, here is the 52-week high for each of these stocks:

o BofA, 43.46

o Citigroup, 27.35

o American Express, 52.63

o JPMorgan Chase, 50.63

o GE, 38.52

(Why do I find myself suddenly whistling “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”?)

In any case, it’s not my intent here to catalog all the reasons for these vertiginous slides. I think we are all too familiar not only with the technical reasons for the declines, but also the stomach-dropping reactions that have accompanied those declines over the last year.

There is still, however, something quite surreal in seeing Citigroup priced at $1.05 per share and with a market capitalization of $5.75 billion, or BofA at $3.75 with a market cap of $24 billion. Deposits at these banks at the end of the 4th quarter were $774 billion and $883 billion, respectively. But, of course, it’s not these massive deposits that investors (which now include the federal government) are worried about.

The surrealism of the situation doesn’t only come from seeing the stock price in isolation, however. Unfortunately, it’s been manifesting itself in 401(k) and other retirement plans all across the land.

All of these stocks were mainstays of the mutual funds that supplied the feathers for the nests where the golden retirement eggs were growing for millions upon millions of workers. These were the mainstays accumulated over years, the stocks to be depended upon to be there when those workers left the job market.

Looking at them now is like visiting a penny arcade.

And with all the devastation that has hit retirement plans, it now seems that many workers won’t be leaving the job market when they had planned. (The other side of this is that in the current recessionary downsizing environment many will be leaving well before they planned.)

Part of the residue of this debacle will be a lasting lack of trust in the integrity of our biggest financial institutions. This would be all right if it led to a demand on the part of the people for stronger, stricter regulation. It would also be OK if it led to wisdom in the allocation of investable income, for retirement or otherwise.

But neither of these outcomes seems to be emerging and people continue in their sheep-like trance despite the horrendous losses they have suffered. Most people continue to have only a scant idea of what the regulatory scheme is, and even less of what it should be. And it is also likely that when the next bubble comes along investors will once again pile into it as if it were the last plane out of Saigon.

We live, but it’s more than a little disappointing how little we learn.