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Stock Market Woes Fail to Intimidate Staunch Investment Clubs - 2002-07-23

As the choppy waters of Wall Street ripple out to Main Street America, investors are wondering how to stay afloat. A growing number of amateur stock market players are joining clubs where they pool their funds, and vote on how to spend them. Charlotte Renner attended a recent meeting of the Bay Investors Group, whose members - all of whom are women - live on or near the coast of the northeastern state of Maine. Five women in summer floral dresses and embroidered t-shirts take their seats around a Formica table, put their pocketbooks on the floor, and listen to the minutes of their last meeting. The Bay Investors Group got its start about 10 years ago. Each member must put at least $10 a month into the brokerage account, which normally has about $20,000 available for transactions.

No one may take out any cash unless they move away, or their survivors collect after they die. These women don't have much hands-on business experience. They're largely self-educated about the market. Claire Pelletier was one of the founding members, and back then, she says, only one of the women even knew a stockbroker, "But the rest of us were completely green at this so the reason we started the club was basically to educate ourselves," she said, "and that still is the purpose of our club to this day." Lately they've been learning some hard lessons. Most of these women are either retired or nearing retirement. A few want nothing to do with firms audited by Arthur Anderson, but they say they aren't spooked by the recent slide on Wall Street. Margaret Bick is the oldest member, at 72. Cracking a smile, she says she hopes the downward bear market will come to an end before she does. Meanwhile she's seeing some tempting prices. "Now's the time to buy," she said, "so we have to look for some good buys and have the courage to do it and stand behind it." With corporate fraud making headlines, the Bay investors are looking to add to their portfolio more companies based in Maine, reasoning that they can more easily attend stockholders' meetings. On this day, though, discussion centers on two multinational corporations, General Electric and Pfizer.

By the end of the meeting, the women vote on what to buy. They want to keep that decision confidential. The research and choices that inform the club's investment also affect their personal portfolios. A few members, including Marge Jicha, are feeling a little more cautious about those investments. "We have Treasury Notes and CDs and sort of holding back from looking into more stocks right now," Ms. Jicha said. All but one of the women - a widow - go home from the meeting to their husbands, where they say they'll have some explaining to do. "Shouldn't we bail out of this stupid market?" the men keep asking. "'No,' their wives reply. 'Be patient. We're in this for the long haul.'"