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Many in Sacramento area tune out stock market’s wild ride

By Dale Kasler and Rick Daysog
Published: Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1

It’s down. It’s up. It’s down again.

Even as the stock market continued its wild and unsettling ride Wednesday, many businesses and consumers tuned much of it out. Houses were bought, cars were sold – commerce and life went on in spite of the turmoil and ominous economic news.

Sacramento car dealer Scott Lasher said business hasn’t dropped off a bit in the past week. He added that consumers may have become somewhat inured to the gyrations on Wall Street.

“We’ve had so many skies-are-falling fire drills,” said Lasher, of the Lasher Auto Group chain of dealerships.

That could be particularly true in a community like Sacramento, where unemployment is 12.3 percent and consumers are “already so hunkered down,” said architect Michael Malinowski.

In more normal times, Malinowski might have gotten calls from panicked clients this week, telling him to postpone expensive home remodelings until the markets calmed down. But these days, Malinowski has very few clients anyway.

“It’s already so grim – how many times can you get slapped in the head before it doesn’t hurt as much anymore?” he said.

That’s not to say the stock market doesn’t matter. No doubt Wednesday’s 519.83-point drop in the Dow Jones average, the latest in a series of chaotic days in the market, further damaged consumers’ balance sheets.

Not to mention their confidence in the economy.

“It breaks their little bubble that things are getting better, things are OK,” said Keith Springer President of Springer Financial Advisors in Sacramento and author of Facing Goliath: How to Triumph in the Dangerous Market Ahead.

If the instability persists for much longer, it could reinforce the notion that the crash of 2008 is being repeated, Springer said.

“It’s only been a week,” he said.

That’s long enough to scare off some consumers. Nick Guzzetta, owner of Guzzetta & Co. Fine Jewelers, said traffic has noticeably stalled at his two stores in Sacramento and Roseville.

“The last few days is almost like a dead stop,” he said.

One couple who had picked out a $20,000 engagement ring called him late Tuesday, asking about rings in the $10,000 to $15,000 range.

“They want to review their finances,” he said.

The market’s drop is having broader impacts as well. Unless there’s a swift recovery, capital gains tax payments will fall, putting a new hole in the state budget. The state’s two public pension funds have lost billions.

“It does have an effect, a wealth effect on the economy,” said economist Jeff Michael, director of the University of the Pacific’s Business Forecasting Center. “It’s certainly going to affect state finances.”

Quantifying the link between Wall Street and Main Street has always been tough. A survey in 2008 by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association showed that 47 percent of U.S. households owned stocks or bonds directly or through retirement plans. That was an increase of eight percentage points in two decades.

But many people don’t feel they’re affected by the market, Michael said.

“Maybe people are getting a little bit numb to things,” he said. “In terms of the average person opening their wallets to spend, it’s going to be more about jobs, their incomes, the housing market.”

While browsing at Sacramento’s Downtown Plaza on Wednesday, retiree Linda Abbott said she’s watching the market closely even though she sold her stocks recently.

But the wild fluctuations aren’t affecting her behavior as a consumer.

“It does make me really nervous,” the Elk Grove resident said. “Is it curbing my spending? No, I don’t think so.”

Nor has the stock market’s stumble put a meaningful halt to Sacramento’s crucial real estate market. Mortgage brokers and real estate executives said very few buyers have pulled out of deals in recent days.

The Federal Reserve’s pledge this week to keep a lid on interest rates has helped. Most 30-year mortgages will stay in the 4.5 percent range.

“We’re starting to see people peek their heads out,” said Richard Swayne, general manager at Dunnigan Realtors.

The weakness of the local real estate market is another reason deals aren’t drying up.

With home prices still about 50 percent below their 2006 peak, most of the transactions in the Sacramento market are short sales or bank-owned sales. They involve a lot of red tape and can take four months to complete – much longer than traditional sales.

As a result, buyers are plowing ahead, no matter how jittery they’ve become about the stock market.

“If you’ve been in contract for four months and you get an acceptance from the bank, you do not want to wait any longer,” said John Arvanitis, president of Sunrise Vista Mortgage Co. in Citrus Heights. “You want that transaction to close as quickly as possible.”

Steve Fleming, president of River City Bank, said he’s more concerned about weak economic fundamentals, not the stock market.

The bank’s economy index has been going backward for some time. The index, based on revenue of 100 of the Sacramento bank’s clients, fell 12 percent last year.

“I’m hesitant to say we’ve hit the bottom,” Fleming said.

Along similar lines, Newcastle swimming pool contractor Jim Courage began noticing a slowdown well before the stock market faltered.

About a month and a half ago, following weeks of discouraging economic news, customers started putting off plans to buy.

“It’s a holding pattern, probably fear,” said Courage, owner of Jim Courage Pools Inc. “People aren’t making decisions.”