Eric Carvin - Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) -- Trillions in stock market value - gone. Trillions in retirement savings - gone. A huge chunk of the money you paid for your house, the money you're saving for college, the money your boss needs to make payroll - gone, gone, gone.
But if you no longer have that money, who does? The fat cats on Wall Street? Some oil baron in Saudi Arabia? The government of China?
Or is it just - gone?
Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, puts it bluntly: The notion that you lose a pile of money whenever the stock market tanks is a "fallacy." He says the price of a stock has never been the same thing as money - it's simply the "best guess" of what the stock is worth.
"In a sense, $50,000 just disappeared when he said that," he said. "But it's all in the mind."
And if you're a few months away from retirement, or hoping to sell your house and buy a smaller one to help pay for your kid's college tuition, this "potential money" is something you're counting on to get by. For people who need cash and need it now, this is as real as money gets, whether or not it meets the technical definition of the word.
"That's a big mistake," says Dale Jorgenson, an economics professor at Harvard.
"You can't enjoy the benefits of your 401(k) if it's disappeared," Jorgenson explains. "If you had it all in financial stocks and they've all gone down by 80 percent - sorry! That is a permanent loss because those folks aren't coming back. We're gonna have a huge shrinkage in the financial sector."
If you choose, you can pour most of your money into stocks and track their value in real time on a computer screen, confident that you'll get good money for them when you decide to sell. And you won't be alone - staring at millions of computer screens are other investors who share your confidence that the value of their portfolios will hold up.
If you once thought your investment portfolio was as good as a suitcase full of twenties, you might suddenly suspect that it's not.
"Those folks in general have been losing their shirts at a prodigious rate," he said. "They took a big risk and now they're suffering from the consequences."
"Of course, they had a great life, as long as it lasted."