By: Hannah Miao and Amina Niasse, Originally Published in the Wall Street Journal
When it comes to investing, older Americans can’t quit their stock-market habit.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults age 65 and older own equity through individual stocks, mutual funds or retirement savings accounts, according to an April survey by Gallup. That is up from roughly half of Americans in the same age cohort before the 2008 financial crisis—the only age group to see stock ownership rates rise over that period.
Conventional financial wisdom suggests investors should rotate from risk assets such as stocks into havens such as bonds as they get older. But many abandoned the old “100 minus age” equity-allocation rule when, for much of the past decade, the stock market appeared to be the only place to get returns as interest rates hovered near zero.
Since U.S. stocks bottomed in March 2009, the S&P 500 has logged a total return of more than 700%, compared with the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond index’s total return of about 46% over the same period, according to Dow Jones Market Data.
Even as rates have risen rapidly since last year, making bonds and cash look more attractive than they have in a long time, many older Americans say they aren’t ready to part ways with their stock-market bets.
“‘FOMO’ does apply to me as well,” said 76-year-old Shan Bhattacharya, referring to a fear of missing out on gains.
Bhattacharya, a retired utility executive, said the majority of his investments are held in equities, and a portion of his portfolio is dedicated to growth-focused tech shares such as Adobe, Apple and Nvidia. He has a pension and receives Social Security but uses income from his investments to supplement his spending and keep pace with inflation.
More members of the baby-boomer generation have moved into retirement age and brought their stockholdings with them, said Jeffrey Jones, a Gallup senior editor. Baby boomers hold 56% of the country’s household corporate-equities and mutual-fund wealth, according to Federal Reserve data as of the end of 2022.
Baby boomers, born in a post-World War II era of prosperity, have higher stock ownership rates than the preceding silent generation, which overlapped with the Great Depression, according to Gallup.
Many baby boomers began investing during a period of stock-market success in the 1980s. They have witnessed market crashes—from Black Monday in 1987, to the bursting of the dot-com bubble, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the onset of the Covid pandemic—and have seen stocks recover and climb higher time and time again.
Individuals who have experienced high stock-market returns over the course of their life report higher financial-risk tolerance and are more likely to invest in the stock market and allocate a greater share of their portfolio to equities, according to research by finance professors Ulrike Malmendier and Stefan Nagel.
“Baby boomers came of age at the start of a secular bull market,” said Gina Bolvin, president of Bolvin Wealth Management Group. “In their experience with crashes, when the market bounced back, it reinforced the idea that stocks are safe investments.”
Their entrance into the stock market coincided with the rise of index funds, providing diversified, passive options to invest. The first index mutual fund, the Vanguard 500, launched in 1976 and the first exchange-traded fund, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, made its debut in 1993.
The growth of brokerages such as Charles Schwab in the 1980s made buying stocks cheaper and easier. Meanwhile, channels such as the Financial News Network and CNBC brought market-focused programming to a broad audience.
When Minh Tu, 65, first started buying stocks, he had to go to the library to read about the previous day’s market performance in The Wall Street Journal. A retired software engineer, he began to take investing more seriously after getting laid off in the early 2000s. By then, the internet made studying the market and trading stocks easier than ever before.
In recent years, Tu has focused on buying commodity stocks that pay attractive dividends for income in his retirement. Having lived through the high inflationary period of the early 1980s, Tu said he prefers investing in stocks over parking money in cash-equivalent assets—such as money-market funds—in an attempt to outpace rising costs.
“Playing in the stock market is not risk free, but there are risks everywhere,” said Tu, who lives in the Atlanta suburbs. “Inflation can eat your assets very quickly. I just try to stretch my money as much as possible.”
The decline of employer-funded pensions beginning in the 1980s also spurred more self-directed investments over the years. After the introduction of the 401(k) model, more employees became responsible for contributing to their retirement plan.
“My generation, the baby boomers—we didn’t get a defined-benefit plan,” said Nancy Tengler, chief executive and chief investment officer of Laffer Tengler Investments. “We knew that we had to pay for our own retirement, and we had to invest those assets. We had to do it ourselves.”Nancy Tengler, Laffer Tengler Investments
As life expectancy in the U.S. has risen over time, older Americans often need to fund retirement for longer periods than previous generations. Life expectancy at birth rose by about five years for men and nearly eight years for women between 1940 and 1960, according to Social Security Administration data.
Henry Robitaille, a 79-year-old retired professor in Windermere, Fla., said he needs to make $45,000 to $50,000 a year through the stock market to fund his lifestyle. Robitaille said income from his equity holdings helps fund his wife’s quilting hobby and visits to his grandchildren across the country.
Robitaille splits his portfolio between high-dividend stocks, blue-chip companies and tech shares, he said.
“I really believe strongly in tech. Tech is what changes the future. They’re not only fun to invest in, but they’re fun to keep up with,” Robitaille said.
To be sure, Gallup’s measure of stock-ownership rates doesn’t distinguish between the size or distribution of survey respondents’ equity holdings. Across age groups, the majority of wealth in corporate equities and mutual-fund shares is held by high-income, college-educated and white households, according to Fed data.
Among Vanguard’s personal-investor clients, individuals 65 and older have a median equity allocation of 63%, according to the asset manager’s data as of the end of January.
When Bhattacharya, the San Francisco Bay Area-based retiree, first started investing, he had to call a broker or go to a brokerage’s bricks-and-mortar office to make a trade. Now, he makes changes in his self-directed portfolio online.
Over the course of his life, Bhattacharya’s investments have helped fund mortgage payments, retirement and his son’s education. He enjoys traveling and is planning a trip to Egypt this fall.
“I learned about investing by losing money and then making money,” Bhattacharya said. “There’s a lot of lessons to be learned.”
Write to Hannah Miao at email@example.com