NEW YORK - January's global sell-off in stocks has left many small investors more puzzled than panicked - and unsure how to act.
They're holding on for now as prices continue to tumble, but their anxiety is mounting. The number of small investors who say they feel "bearish" soared this past week, according to a U.S. survey. Some stock funds have been hit with their biggest withdrawals since 2012.
If more people start selling, it would reverse a new and surprising trend in some of the world's biggest economies: individuals moving back into stocks after years of shunning them.
"I don't know what to do," says Ken Duska, a retiree in Mingo Junction, Ohio, who is sticking with his investment plan for the moment, though he's not sure that's wise. "After (the) upswing last year, it probably isn't going to continue."
Small investors around the world were on edge even before growing signs of a slowdown in China and plunging emerging-market currencies dragged many stock indexes down to their worst start of a new year since 2010. They worried stocks were overdue for a drop, after soaring by double-digit percentages in countries like the U.S., Japan and France in 2013. In the U.S., many noted, the market had not fallen by 10 percent or more, known on Wall Street as a correction, for more than two years.
Now, with the Dow Jones industrial average down 5 percent from a recent peak, one is closer at hand.
"The question is, 'Is this all of it, or is there significantly more to come?"' says Greg Sarian, a managing director at the Sarian Group at HighTower, a wealth advisory firm in Pennsylvania.
Anxiety has ramped up in Asia, too, where major indexes are down from 3.5 percent to 5.5 percent this year.
"Clients were very worried as they haven't seen such market jitters in a while," says Lee Young-hwan, a private banking consultant at Daishin Securities Co. in Seoul. Still, he says that many are more inclined to snap up stocks now at lower prices, than to bail out.
Since the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, small investors have mostly dumped stocks. But recently, buoyed by strengthening economies in the developed world, they have crept back into the market in some countries.
In the final four months of last year, nearly $100 billion flowed into stock mutual funds in seven big economies tracked by Lipper. The countries are the U.S., which accounted for much of the buying, as well as Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and South Korea.
Now, that flow of money might reverse as investors grow worried.
At the start of the year, more than twice as many U.S. investors said they were bullish on stocks than said they were bearish, according to a survey by the American Association of Individual Investors. Now, the bulls and bears are neck and neck, with sentiments yo-yoing along with the indexes.
"I've lost ... maybe $50,000 in the past week, and I'm not happy about it," says Scott Woodall, 44, of Acworth, Ga. "I hate the stock market."
So far, some small investors seem willing to ride out the storm, though, like Wooddall they don't sound too happy.
Leighanne Franklin, a mental health therapist in Greenwood, N.Y., wonders whether U.S. stocks are "just another bubble." But she is adding to her retirement account anyway, partly because she doesn't want to miss out on matching funds from her employer.
"It's better than putting it in a savings account," she says.
Eric Rogers, a home builder in Independence, Ore., says stocks are "inflated," and that he isn't surprised that trouble in emerging countries has pushed the market down.
Still, the 44-year-old is holding onto stocks in his IRA, figuring he can ride out any drops over time.
"It'll be wonderful for me in 20 years," he says, "but right now ... I can't touch it."
Youkyung Lee and David McHugh of the AP contributed to this report.