Those of us who’ve accumulated a few gray hairs like to think we’ve also gained some wisdom along the way. When it comes to making investment decisions, however, being older doesn’t necessarily equate to being smarter.
Morningstar studied how retirement plan investors reacted last year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused stock prices to plummet, and we graybeards were the group most likely to tweak our 401(k) accounts in response to the turbulence.
The change usually was to move money out of stocks — an unwise move in hindsight, since the market has soared 87% from its low point in March 2020.
To be sure, not all older investors panicked, but among workers who made their own fund choices in 401(k) plans, those over age 55 were much more likely to switch money out of stocks last year. That result surprised David Blanchett, Morningstar’s head of retirement research.
He would have expected people with decades of investing experience to be better at riding out the storm. They have, after all, seen stocks bounce back from previous bear markets.
Severe losses, though, seem to be scarier when one is closer to retirement. “Let’s be honest, if you lose some money when you’re 30, it’s no big deal,” Blanchett said. “You have time to make up for it. As you approach retirement, the impact of the losses becomes much more real.”
“People who should be better investors are making worse decisions because of fear,” he added.
Larry Swedroe, chief research officer at Buckingham Strategic Wealth in Clayton, figures gray-haired investors also were spooked by headlines about the worsening pandemic. It seemed like a new kind of shock, different than previous market selloffs.
“They had seen in 2008 how bad the market could get,” he said. “They might think, ‘This looks like it could get a lot worse, and I can’t afford it.’”
Swedroe believes there’s an important lesson to be learned from last year’s brief but painful bear market: If you panicked and sold near the bottom, you had too much money in stocks in the first place.
“If you had 50% equities and that kind of shock is going to cause you to panic and sell, you shouldn’t be 50% in equities, you should be less,” Swedroe said.
The Morningstar study found that investors who had bet most heavily on stocks made the biggest shifts. People over age 60 who had 90% of their 401(k) in stocks at the start of 2020 took more than half their money out of the market.
In the same age group, even people with a sensible 50% allocation to stocks reduced that by 11 percentage points, or almost a quarter. People under age 50 with a 50% stock allocation actually increased their exposure to the market.
Men were more likely than women to shift money out of stocks near the market bottom, but that result is less surprising. Other studies have found that women take a long-term approach to investing, while men are aggressive and impulsive.
The good news in the 401(k) world is that target-date funds and other managed accounts are becoming more popular. These accounts let a professional set an appropriate allocation between stocks and bonds.
Younger investors seem especially comfortable with these options, and people who chose them tended to stick with them through last year’s market turbulence.
Instead of confusing age with wisdom, a lot of older investors should consider imitating their younger colleagues.