Stocks are less alluring for young investors

Kansas City StarJuly 16, 2012 

The tech bubble wiped out Tyler Sadlow’s first foray into the stock market. He had invested $100 in 1999 with his grandfather’s help.

“We put it all in Level 3 Communications … So we lost all that money,” said Sadlow, who is working on a graduate degree in accounting. “It was a lot of money for me.”

Tough lesson for a 10-year-old and one the Lenexa resident remembers at 23.

When he returned to the stock market last fall, Sadlow decided to take on less risk than a financial adviser recommended for someone his age.

That meant less money in stocks.

Many young investors — confronting lousy markets and Wall Street scandals — aren’t embracing the stock market as eagerly as their predecessors did. Others, caught in the economic malaise with low-paying jobs or no job at all, simply don’t have money to invest.

The millennial generation has faced a tougher road starting out than most.

“That kind of 18-to-34 group, all they’ve known in their lives is crisis. It’s tech bubble. It’s 9-11. It’s financial crisis. It’s housing bubble,” said Dan Berman, who manages the two Charles Schwab investment offices in the Kansas City area. “As much as they understand the power of investing, all they’ve had is negative reinforcement.”

Older investors have the benefit of knowing better times when risk meant reward. Many also own at least a budding start on their golden years to nurture.

So far, the evidence on young Americans suggests an undecided generation, teetering at the market’s edge.

A mutual fund industry survey showed Americans under 35 have turned away from investment risks more since 2008 than older groups have.

And a May survey by Charles Schwab found that 29 percent of young investors were planning to pull money out of the stock market compared with only 11 percent of older investors.

Berman said young investors are willing to open savings accounts at Schwab. But many have shied away from risking money in the stock market. “You hear the fear,” he said.

But all Americans’ investing confidence has taken a hit.

Larry Cohen, director of Strategic Business Insights in Princeton, N.J., has been asking Americans for their financial opinions every two years for decades. In a 2010 survey, more than 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “The stock market is too risky for me.” That was more than in any year since 1990.

The 2010 survey also showed all age groups — from twenty-somethings through sixty-somethings — grew far more confident during the stock market’s heady run until 2000 and became equally cautious by 2010.

Data from millions of 401(k) accounts show that young investors remained willing in 2010 to stuff their retirement plans at work with stocks, even as older workers backed away from the market.

Much rides on young Americans’ decision to invest. Starting early would give them the easiest path to retirement. But if they reject the stock market, they stand the risk of retiring wholly unprepared.

Their collective decision may weigh on older generations, too. Without young investors in the market, older investors would find fewer potential buyers. And that could mean potentially lower prices when they need to sell stocks as retirement approaches.

With the stakes so high, many are worried about youth’s ultimate choice.

“We’re at risk of losing an entire generation of investors,” John Thiel, head of private banking and the investment group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told an industry conference in April.

Jobs and debt

Reluctance to invest is less of an issue for some young investors than dealing with the financial stresses of a bad economy, said Stewart Koesten, of KHC Wealth Management in Overland Park.

After all, work is scarce. Unemployment tops 14 percent among Americans between 20 and 25.

And those lucky enough to find that first job are just setting up. They’ve got car payments and rent; they need a rainy day fund. Add a big student loan payment and maybe nothing’s left for a nest egg.

Lots of twenty-somethings would like to invest — if they could.

“Unfortunately right now it’s probably the last thing on my mind,” said Brad Martin, a 26-year-old Lee’s Summit resident.

Armed with a degree in mathematics, Martin isn’t afraid of stocks. “I’m a gambling man,” he said, acknowledging the market’s volatility.

His attention is focused elsewhere right now — on the job market. And it has been uglier than the stock market.

More than a year after graduating, Martin dutifully hangs on to his part-time merchandise specialist job at Old Navy. He started working there at 19, stayed all through college, always part-time.

It means he had to give up an apartment he shared with a friend and move back in with his parents.

Martin’s former roommate, Ryan Teaney, is applying for law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City but tells a similar story. College degree, part-time income, job hunt, living with parents, ready to worry about retirement after the career begins.

Financial advisers recognize that nest eggs are an early victim in the extreme budget battles that many in this generation face.

Their ability to invest is further threatened by an explosion in student loans — which means a future of debt payments. The federal government has originated $1.3 trillion in new student loans since mid-2009, a June report from Wells Fargo Securities said.

Tanya Sherman figures her student loans, if they came due now, would put an end to her investing plans.

Only 22, Sherman has had an Edward Jones investment account for more than three years. A little bit of every paycheck she earned at a call center job went into that account while she attended Kansas State University.

The call center closed, and Sherman ended up leaving school. Now, she’s a year into her new job and finishing her education online.

After the rent, bills and car payment, Sherman figures there still should be enough to restart the Edward Jones investing. Maybe cut down on expensive makeup.

“If I had to make the student debt payment, on top of my car? Absolutely not. I would be in the negative,” she said.

First things first

The stock market also often eludes the attention of twenty-somethings with jobs. They’ve got a lot of other things on their minds, too. Raashid Brown of Raytown is a classic example.

He has worked full-time in law enforcement for four years. But Brown has yet to put away any of his pay in the retirement plan at work. Mind you, he’s been pushed to do so.

Tellis Bolton brought up the idea at church, planting the seed three years ago. Retirement, the Primerica representative in Lee’s Summit said, doesn’t happen at a certain age. It happens when your nest egg gets big enough to support you.

“He opened up a whole new understanding of retirement,” said Brown, who is 24.

So what’s he been doing with his money?

He bought a car — reliable transportation to work is an early must for twenty-somethings — with just a few payments left.

Brown had a bad experience with his first credit card. He was only 18 and, by his account, maxed out the first day. It took four years to pay it off.

Now, he’s engaged to be married and will turn the car payment money into a wedding.

Brown and Britiany Stanford also would like to save for a down payment on a house in the next couple of years, capitalizing on cheap home prices.

But mortgages have become far more difficult to get in the wake of the financial crisis. Lenders also want much bigger down payments, further delaying when the youngest generation will become homeowners.

Some young adults who bought homes before housing prices collapsed have seen them become a financial nightmare they may never escape.

Nest eggs should take a back seat to an emergency fund, according to standard advice from financial experts. The idea is to set aside enough to cover perhaps three or six months of living expenses in case it’s needed. The last recession proved that much may not be enough.

As for the stock market, it’s for money you don’t need now, or any time soon, advisers say. And the money should stay put a long time because, as twenty-somethings have found out quickly, stock prices don’t always go up.

Young investors can afford to take those risks because they have time to make up early losses.

Despite all his plans, Brown figures he’s ready to find some retirement money in his budget and get a nest egg started this year.

“I look back on how much money I’ve wasted that didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “I could have taken $50 or $100 a month, a paycheck, and put it toward something that could have benefited me in the future.”

Saving a generation

Some twenty-somethings have gotten a push to overcome the fear of investing.

Britton Tolbert, 23, got a nudge about a year ago. At his father’s insistence, Tolbert opened an individual retirement account and has added to it with each paycheck. Some of his IRA money goes into stocks and some into bonds, which tend to be less risky than stocks.

“My fear was losing my money,” Tolbert said of starting the account. “My dad kind of pushed me out there off the cliff, made me fly.”

Many young investors say they’ve become interested in the stock market through school. Some had played the Stock Market Game, which gives elementary and high school students a pretend brokerage account for 10 weeks.

Others learn about stocks on the job when they open a 401(k) plan at work.

And these retirement accounts seem to be one place where fear hasn’t gotten to twenty-something investors, according to a report from the Investment Company Institute.

Sarah Holden, senior director of retirement and investor research, has studied data drawn from millions of 401(k) accounts. Among other things, it shows a drop in the number of account holders willing to put 80 percent or more of their money into stocks rather than less risky choices.

It’s not that 401(k) investors abandoned the stock market, they just backed out a bit.

“What’s changed is how far into the water you’ve gone,” Holden said.

The one exception — twenty-somethings.

More than 60 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds in 2010 were all-in with stocks or nearly so. That was higher than the 55 percent of twenty-somethings a decade earlier.

“That finding runs counter to the notion that younger participants, whose investing experience might be framed by the bear markets of 2000 and 2008, would become a ‘lost generation’ avoiding all stock market investments,” Holden wrote in a December report.

The data doesn’t reveal why workers in their twenties embrace stocks so firmly inside 401(k) plans.

But Holden has an idea, namely target date investment funds.

A target date fund provides a ready-made mix of stocks and bonds until the investor reaches his expected retirement date. For young workers, the prescribed mix starts out heavy on stocks and cuts back over the years.

Roughly three out of four employers’ 401(k) plans now offer target date funds. Employers often promote them as a good choice, and young investors tend to go along.

Many employers now also automatically enroll newly hired employees in the 401(k) plan, rather than requiring the worker to take the step.

“Younger workers, because of plan design, are in better shape than in the past,” said David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America in Chicago.

Of course, the key word is worker. Without a job, investors have no 401(k) plan to join.

It’s one of the many barriers standing between the millennial generation and the stock market.

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