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BEAR MARKET ANNIVERSARY | Downturn Leaves Trail of
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Sankar and SabitaMukherjee

Former paper millionaires

March 16, 2003|Kathy M. Kristof

At the height of the bull market, Sankar and Sabita Mukherjee were millionaires -- on paper.

Like many Americans, the middle-income couple from Edison, N.J., had watched as their portfolio of hot tech stocks -- Intel Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. -- soared. Their paper wealth eventually topped $1.2 million.

In 2000, Sabita began planning an early retirement from her job as an architectural draftswoman. She and her husband had saved more than enough to finance their modest lifestyle. And $100,000 ticketed for their son's college education was in the hands of a well-regarded money manager.

"We had worked all these years and saved all this money," said Sankar, 53, a computer programmer who came to the United States from India 22 years ago. "We had the satisfaction of knowing that we had accomplished this, if not for ourselves, for our families."

The trouble was timing: Sabita's projected retirement date was September 2001.

Even though the market began slipping 18 months earlier, her husband wasn't worried. Along with other investors, they had learned through the 1987 crash and the 1998 downturn that market drops were temporary -- "buying opportunities," professionals said. The Mukherjees held on, expecting a rebound.

Then came the terrorist attacks, which shattered Americans' illusions of both personal and economic security. A year later, things were no better. Now, as the bear market grinds on, the Mukherjees have fallen into debt and despair.

Their million-dollar nest egg is worth less than $300,000. Their son Shantanu's college money has all but evaporated and they've taken out loans to pay his way through business school at New York University.

They worry constantly about retirement and how they'll pay for college for their 12-year-old daughter, Anisha. Sankar is taking sleeping pills. Sabita, 50, is so depressed she can't work.

"We don't see any bright side," said Sankar. "We lost all this money. You begin to think there is no way we can save enough now to retire.

"You begin to think we have no future."

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