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 some stock markets down to their worst start of a new year since 2010. They were worried that stocks had climbed too fast, and 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., some stock bulls had been bracing for a drop of 10 percent or more, known on Wall Street as a correction. That hasn’t happened in more than two years.

Now, with the Dow Jones industrial average down 5 percent from a recent peak, one is closer at hand.


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"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.

"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, South Korea. Still, he says that many are more inclined to snap up stocks now at lower prices, than to bail out.

That country’s main index, the Kospi, is down 3 percent since the start of year. In Japan, the Nikkei is off 8.5 percent, after soaring 58 percent last year. The Hang Seng in Hong Kong has fallen nearly 6 percent, after a 3 percent gain.

In Moscow, where the main stock index has been dropping for a year, Marina Pliskina, an English teacher, decided she’d finally had enough. She recently sold all of her stocks. "You want your money to last, but then it goes down and down," she says.

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 Inc., a fund data provider. 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.