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Investors are feeling better about the markets than at any time since the financial crisis, a new poll shows. But most also believe they have topped out in terms of earning power, and that the Great Recession continues to weigh on their finances.
Buoyed by stronger GDP growth, record high stock prices, and a falling unemployment rate, investors in the third quarter pushed the Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index to its highest mark since December 2007. Yet 56% of workers expect only inflation-rate pay raises the rest of their career, and half believe they are destined to end up living on Social Security benefits.
“At the macro level, people are feeling pretty good,” says Karen Wimbish, director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo. “But at the personal level, the Great Recession left a deeper wound than a lot of us realize.” The average worker believes that wage growth, which has been stagnant for decades, won’t rebound before they retire. This feeling is especially acute among the upper middle class, those making more than $100,000 a year.
The gloom is partly attributable to the national discussion about wage inequality and some evidence that only the top 1% is getting ahead. It may also reflect a sense that the U.S. is losing ground to the faster growing developing world and experiencing an inevitable relative decline in standard of living.
The Federal Reserve has been battling anemic growth for seven years through an aggressive stimulus program that includes rock-bottom short-term interest rates. This week, the two Fed governors most outspoken and critical of this policy confirmed that they would retire next year, essentially putting the Fed all-in on a growth and jobs agenda with diminishing concern over inflation and underscoring the sense of stagnation so many feel.
Most investors polled (58%) said they are doing about as well or worse than five years ago. Similarly, 63% said they are saving about the same or less than five years ago. These figures are essentially unchanged from two years ago, suggesting that investors have not made much financial headway in the recovery. Roughly half said they are still feeling the effects of the recession.
“Is it real?” Wimbish says. "Or is it emotional?” If our prospects are really so dire, how do you explain record high stock prices, strong quarterly growth, a pickup in consumer borrowing, and an improving jobs picture?
Whatever is causing the gloom, one result is that nearly a third of investors continue to shun the stock market. Those with less than $100,000 in assets avoid stocks at twice the rate as those with more than that level of savings. Arguably, those with fewer assets are precisely the ones who need to be in stocks to take advantage of their superior long-run gains and build a nest egg.
They may be worried that they have missed the rally and that it is too late to get in. But the overriding concern—expressed by 60%—is that stocks are just too risky. So as the average stock has more than doubled from the bottom and recovered all its losses, and as those who remained true to their 401(k) contribution plan through thick and thin have become flush with gains, the truly risk averse have lost valuable time. Seeing this now may be part of what makes them so glum.