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5 Reasons Our Aging Society Doesn't Mean Stock Market Doom

A significant part of my time at Buckingham Asset Management is spent calming investors down, assuring them that what they're concerned about is nothing more than noise meant to grab your attention, but has no basis in reality. The following is a recent example.

After reading an article, a client asked: "If 43 percent of Americans working are going to retire in the next decade, what are they going to live on? Are they going to liquidate their holdings in the stock market and, at a minimum, shift more into bonds? Won't this restrain market growth more than the historical levels?" Here are five reasons why this type of consternation was unwarranted.

Information Isn't Wisdom The first thing I pointed out was that the investor should not confuse information with wisdom (information you can use to produce above benchmark returns). It's only unanticipated events that move markets, not those that are fully anticipated. Think of it this way: If you know something (like a large segment of the population is nearing retirement), it's a virtual certainty that other investors also have this knowledge and have acted on it. Thus, the expected impact of equity sales by retirees should already be reflected in today's prices. It's only if the level of equity sales is greater than expected should there be a negative impact on future equity prices. And, it's certainly possible that sales will be less than expected or that there will be an unexpected offsetting increase in demand for equities from other sources. If that's true, all else equal, equity prices would increase.

Conventional Wisdom Is Often Wrong A second point I raised was that often what one reads (even if it sounds logical and the arguments are persuasive) may still be wrong -- as conventional wisdom often is. One of my favorite sayings is "It ain't what a man doesn't know that gets him in trouble, but what he knows for sure, but ain't so."

The conventional wisdom about the relationship between age and investment allocations is actually wrong. There's no evidence that investors dramatically reduce equity exposure as they age. As Jim Davis of Dimensional Fund Advisors pointed out in a 2005 article, the evidence actually suggests that investors "accumulate equity positions during their years of greatest earning power and do not dramatically reduce those positions as they enter retirement."

Will Everyone Retire as Expected? I also pointed out that it's certainly possible that people won't retire as expected. They may decide to continue working. Many people are now working well into what was considered the retirement years. Extending working years reduces the need to draw on portfolio assets.

It's Not Just About the United States I next pointed out that the U.S. equity market isn't solely dependent on U.S. investors. The rapid growth of sovereign wealth funds and rapidly increasing per capita GNP in developing markets could lead to increased demand for U.S. equities from non-U.S. investors. Thus, it's quite possible that when a U.S. retiree sells, the buyer will be a young software engineer from India or China. Thus, even if U.S. retirees become large net sellers of equities, it doesn't mean valuations will be negatively impacted. There might be offsetting increases in demand from other sources.

The Savings Rate Has Been Climbing In the most recent decade, one of the biggest concerns of policy makers was the very low rate of savings in the U.S., as the rate was so low that it was in danger of dropping below zero. The financial crisis has caused investors to reevaluate their savings patterns. Today, the savings rate is around 6 percent. And in the 1980s, the savings rate was around 10 percent. A rising savings rate could translate into an increased demand for equities.

The bottom line is this: Because today's market valuation is based on all that is knowable about the future, it's likely that currently unforeseeable events will have a far greater impact on prices than anticipated demographic shifts. And because what we don't know is by definition unforecastable, the biggest impact on equity markets will likely come from events that few (if any) even have on their radar screens.

Thus, you're best served by ignoring market forecasts and focusing on what you can actually control:

  • Your risk level
  • How well you're diversified (eliminating or minimizing the diversifiable risks of single companies, sectors and countries)
  • Your costs
  • Your tax efficiency
And finally, the fact that future returns are likely to be impacted by events that are not forecastable is why investors have historically demanded a large premium for taking the risks of equities. It's also why equities are risky no matter how long your investment horizon.

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