World and Nation

Market Volatility Makes Some Retirees Nervous

Older Americans with investments are among the hardest hit by the turmoil in the financial markets and have the least opportunity to recover.

As companies have switched from fixed pensions to 401(k) accounts, retirees risk losing big chunks of their wealth and income in a single day’s trading, as many have in the last month.

“There’s a terrified older population out there,” said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “If you’re 45 and the market goes down, it bothers you, but it comes back. But if you’re retired or about to retire, you might have to sell your assets before they have a chance to recover. And people don’t have the luxury of being in bonds because they don’t yield enough for how long we live.”

Today’s retirees have less money in savings, longer life expectancies and greater exposure to market risk than any retirees since World War II. Even before the last week of turmoil, 39 percent of retirees said they expected to outlive their savings, up from 29 percent in 2007, according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, an industry-sponsored group in Washington.

“This really highlights the new world of retirement,” said Richard Johnson, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. “It’s a much riskier world for retirees, because people don’t have defined-benefit plans. They have pots of money and they have to worry about making it last.”

Carol J. Emerson, 65, sees herself as particularly vulnerable. Her annual income of $50,000 comes almost entirely from dividends, and she says she is worried that as her stocks decline, some of those dividends will fall, too.

“If I were guaranteed that the dividend would remain unchanged, I could ignore that the underlying value of my stocks has eroded,” she said. “But that is not the way it works. If the value of the stocks doesn’t go up again, there are not a lot of companies that can keep on paying a 16 percent dividend.”

Nevertheless, Emerson decided to push ahead last week with the rebuilding of her sun porch in Ventura, Calif., not wanting to endure any longer the discomfort of life in a mobile home with a leaky and rusting porch.

“I don’t obsess about what is happening, but it is always in the back of my mind,” Emerson said, adding that she would cancel the $30,000 project if she lost faith that stocks would rebound in her lifetime.