Red Zone

Millennials, Born Under Sign of the Bull, Should Embrace the Bear

To do as well as their parents, they need to get into a slumping market.
Photographer: Lee/Central Press/Getty Images

Remember, millennials: Red is good.

Millennials are probably tired of hearing that they’re not doing as well as their baby-boomer parents. But with every 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, their fortunes are brightening.

If they doubt it, millennials need look no further than mom and dad. The baby boomers entered the workforce from roughly 1966 to 1984. They couldn’t have timed it better because U.S. stocks were in an epic funk during those 19 years. The S&P 500 Index gained just 3.2 percent annually while inflation grew by 6.5 percent, which means the real value of U.S. stocks declined by a stunning 3.3 percent a year for nearly two decades.

Long Funk

The S&P 500 declined 3.3 percent annually in real terms from 1966 to 1984

Sources: Bloomberg, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Note: Indexed to 100.

It also meant that by the time boomers entered their peak earnings years in the mid-1980s, the stage was set for the biggest market run-up on record. The S&P 500 gained 8.8 percent annually from 1985 to 2017. That puts it in the top 6 percent of the best-performing 33-year periods since 1926, the earliest year for which numbers are available. And of the 41 periods in that 6 percent, all but three ended in 1999 or later.

Wealth Boom

All but three of the best-performing 33-year periods for U.S. stocks since 1926 ended in 1999 or later

Sources: Bloomberg, author's calculations

Granted, there were some perilous moments over the last three decades, such as the 1987 crash, the dot-com collapse in 2000 and the 2008 financial crisis. But those three episodes were relatively short-lived -- 17 months on average, according to data compiled by Yardeni Research Inc. Boomers who managed to hang on were richly rewarded.

Millennials, on the other hand, were born under a different star. They began showing up for work in roughly 2004. Despite the intervening financial crisis, the S&P 500 has gained 6.5 percent annually from 2004 to 2017, a real return of 4.4 percent.

No matter how you slice it, the market is miles more expensive today than it was when the boomers were at a comparable stage in their careers. Which means that millennials can’t expect the same payoff from U.S. stocks as their parents.

Not yet, at least. Millennials will soon enter their peak earnings years. They should root for recent market turmoil to turn into a long rout. And if their wish is granted, they should shovel as much money as possible into the market.   

It won’t be easy. For one thing, millennials don’t think they need any help. In a recent survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, 77 percent of millennials said they feel financially confident, compared with 67 percent of boomers and 64 percent of Generation X.

In addition, millennials are likely to feel some pain if the market tumbles further. They’re more diligent savers than their elders. Of millennials surveyed, 48 percent said they contribute 10 percent or more of their income to their 401(k) plans, compared with 44 percent of boomers and 36 percent of Generation X. More millennials than members of Generation X said that they save money each month and that saving for retirement is a basic necessity. Those savings would be squashed temporarily in a sell-off.

Millennials also stand to inherit an estimated $30 trillion from boomers, and that money would most likely get squeezed, too.  

Stockphobia

More than half of millennials surveyed said they would be unlikely to ever invest in the stock market

Source: Allianz

The biggest challenge, however, is that millennials may not have the nerve to buy after a bust. A whopping 57 percent of millennials surveyed said they would be unlikely to ever invest in the stock market, compared with 33 percent of boomers and 43 percent of Generation X. And that’s nine years after the last bear market. Imagine how they’ll feel after the next one.

It’s a big world, of course, and millennials can find lots of attractive places to invest. Still, a sale on U.S. stocks would help. So here’s my wish for you, millennials: May Mr. Market grant you a long bear market and the wisdom to know what to do with it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Nir Kaissar in New York at nkaissar1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

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