It started with anecdotal evidence: a conversation with a co-worker about a group of professionals he spoke to about their 401k. The wiser (by which I mean older) folks were asking about the outlook for the economy and how they could maximize their 401k contributions. But the young man in the group, who was in his early 30s, expressed complete contempt for the stock market. All of his money, he said, was in cash. Then a client of mine who is nearing retirement called me just to tell me about a dinner he went to where the topic of investing came up. He was shocked at how vehement the young people at the table were about not investing in stocks due to their risk.
Since then I’ve read about a growing body of evidence coming from surveys and other research that suggests that the younger generations are too conservative in their investments. Gen Y is saving but not investing aggressively enough. The problem is that they distrust financial institutions (we don’t count) and believe another financial meltdown is all but imminent.
Gen Y, we don’t blame you. You were in your teens on Sept. 11, 2001, which had to have rocked whatever concept of stability you had. By the time you were old enough to know what the stock market was, the technology-driven crash of 2001-2002 was causing strife in budding 401k plans. And just when you were starting to dream about home ownership the housing market was spiraling out of control in 2008-2010. Many of you watched your parents go through extreme financial duress during this time period, something you were well old enough to understand.
It’s no wonder that Generation Y is too conservative. Your generation doesn’t have the benefit of personally experiencing the roaring 80s and 90s to boost your confidence about the markets. You don’t know who Crockett and Tubbs are. Looking at historical stock returns on paper just isn’t the same as living through it. And it’s hard to understand why men ever wore over-sized shoulder pads, but they did. Even the last five (amazing) years of positive stock markets seems like mere payback for the horror of 2008-2009. Despite this, we have to remember that stocks have historically provided the highest long-term return. No matter what your steadfast beliefs are about the future of the economy, it probably carries no more predictive capacity than the next differing opinion. That’s why we look to history as a guide, rather than trying to guess the future.
When you look at stock volatility over long time frames, it isn’t nearly as risky as the day-to-day movement would have you believe. In the last 87 years large company stocks’ annual returns ranged from -43% in the worst year to +54% in the best. That’s quite a spread! But those same stocks in any given 20 year period (starting on any given day in any year) averaged returns in a range of +3% in the worst 20-year period to nearly +18% in the best 20-year period. That includes the Great Depression and the market crashes of this century. That’s a lot easier to swallow. You have a long time before liquidating your accounts for retirement – probably more than 30 years, so you should be taking a longer term view.
And let’s not forget about inflation. That cash that’s in your 401k is doing less than nothing for you. Long run inflation is around 3%. If you are getting a 0% return on your cash, that is actually -3% in real dollars, guaranteed.
Saving money isn’t good enough. Millennials need to invest with a little more oomph. Yes, diligently putting away $500 a month for 30 years is hard work and no one wants to see their money shrink. But consider this: if you get a modest 4% average return on those savings, you will have $347,000 in retirement; if you double that return to 8% an amazing thing happens: $745,000. Taking risk means a lot of ups and downs along the way, but potentially twice the money in the end. If you can go cliff-jumping with your friends, you can buy stocks, right? (No? Was that just my friends?)
There is no reward without risk, to be sure. Any investment plan should be done with the full comprehension of the volatility, range of outcomes and potential for return. There certainly is risk in losing money in the stock market over short and intermediate time periods. However, those losses only become permanent if you sell out during periods of decline. It seems all but certain that an all-cash/fixed income portfolio is doomed to growth too slow to possibly reach any long-term financial goals.
Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®
A Gen-exer who believes all of the above applies to her generation too, except the part about over-sized shoulder pads.