As the economy struggled to take off in the years after the financial crisis, Americans had at least one shining source of optimism: a booming stock market that not only helped rebuild shattered 401k plans, but suggested better times to come.
But now, with the economy still mired in a sluggish recovery, that silver lining is being threatened. The stock market is lurching downward after a flat 2015, and large banks are casting increasingly gloomy predictions about returns in the years to come.
Some older workers say they’re now planning to push back retirement dates, bracing for a protracted bear market that shrinks their nest egg.
The markets are responding largely to global factors, including deflated oil prices and fears about weak global growth, particularly in China. But those factors are now forging a new and unsettled stage in America’s seven-year recovery: one in which it’s harder for ordinary workers and 401k holders to build wealth.
Markets swung up Friday after plunging the day before, but the gains weren’t enough to erase the losses for the week. Both the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock-index are down more than 8 percent for the year. Of the Dow’s 10 steepest single-day declines since 2009, five have come in the last seven months.
Not only is the stock market swooning, but wages are flat and housing prices are only beginning to recover. For those with money to invest, there are few promising options. Bond yields are at basement-lows and savings accounts offer only fractional interest rates. After years in which the stock market was unusually placid and bullish, some investors say the question of what to do with their money is a new source of anxiety.
“Since this whole dive has started, I’ve been afraid to even look at my 401k,” said Jeff Sawyer, 59, who works for an apparel company in Whitefield, N.H. and is considering delaying retirement.
Citing the risk of falling oil prices and lower expectations for economic growth, some major investment firms are downgrading their views for how much investors will gain from stock markets over the next several years. Economists and strategists for RBC Capital Markets, the Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS have reduced their targets for where equities will end 2016.
JPMorgan Chase, which at the end of last year was calling for the S&P 500 to rise by 7.6 percent this year, now expects stocks to fall 2.2 percent for the year.
If those forecasts hold true, it will close the books on a remarkable bull run in which Wall Street easily out-performed the economy while volatility remained low. Companies’ stocks benefitted indirectly from the U.S.’s tepid overall growth: The Federal Reserve kept interest rates low to stimulate the economy, allowing businesses to borrow on the cheap for an irregularly long period of time.
Americans in the past few years had been able to use stock market investments as a way to recover from losses during the Great Recession and fared better than those who locked most of their wealth into their homes. Investors enjoyed a handsome payout, as the Dow more than doubled between 2009 and 2015.
“They have more than recovered that wealth and it’s primarily because they had exposure to the stock market at precisely the right time,” said Ray Boshara, director of the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
But some economists had long called for a correction, and it came suddenly with the collision of several new economic forces. Rampant drilling from Texas to Saudi Arabia led to an oil glut that caused a slide in prices and forced major investment cutbacks in the energy sector. The Chinese economy hit the skids after two decades of double digit growth. Advanced economies, from Europe to Japan, appear incapable of picking up the pace despite a hefty push from their central banks. Corporate profits in the U.S. are being dragged down by weaker currencies abroad and by political chaos in the Middle East and some South American nations.
Though U.S. economic data shows little evidence of a looming recession, economists say the market is behaving as if such risk is growing. Part of the concern is that in the event of a crisis, with global interest rates so low, “the ability of the central banks to offset that shock look to be relatively limited,” said David Stockton, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. In an earnings conference call on Thursday, Pepsi’s chief executive, Indra Nooyi, also voiced concern that volatile financial markets could feed into a broader cycle of damage in which consumers cut spending and corporations cut investment.
“While the U.S. economy is experiencing a recovery, it’s delicate,” Nooyi said. “And there is risk that it will not sustain itself if the rest of the globe continues to experience such massive pressures.”
In the U.S. the most vulnerable are those approaching retirement, or otherwise close to needing the savings they have invested in the stock market. If the losses turn out to be more prolonged, they could find themselves forced to draw down on their savings just as their balances are shrinking, reducing the chances that they’ll be able to fully recover from those losses.
Carol Helton, 61, has watched her retirement account shrink by more than $100,000 over the past several months, the equivalent of about two years’ worth of the income she and her husband hope to have in retirement. “That’s two and a half more years at least that I have to work,” says Helton, who has abandoned her goal of retiring at 63, realizing she may have to wait closer to 70.
Helton, who expects the majority of her retirement income to come from her savings, said the recent market volatility has created another wave of uncertainty just as she and her husband, who is 60, are within years of retirement. “There are no guarantees,”she said.
Financial advisers and investment firms around the country say they have been fielding more calls than usual from savers who are wondering if the market slide will force them to rework their retirement plans.
“People want to know the market outlook. They’re asking: ‘should I make a change or shouldn’t I?,'” said Jeanne Thompson, a vice president at Fidelity Investments.
About 6 million retirement savers called, chatted or emailed with representatives from Fidelity Investments in a single day in January, one of the busiest days on record and about 40 percent higher than a typical day.
Conventional investment advice has said that savers who store their money in the markets will be rewarded in the long run. But the prospects look dimmer for the near term. After several strong years of gains, the relatively easy money – the bounce-back from the recession – is gone.
Savers are being reminded that returns may be more limited in the near term and cautioned to do a gut check of their portfolios and make sure they are comfortable with their risk.
Liz Ann Sonders, the chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, recommends that investors stick to their long-term plans and not hold more money in stocks than necessary.
“The question everyone wants to know is how much worse will this get,” she said. “The short answer is we don’t know.”