Baby Boomers: The Biggest Threat to Your Investments?

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In case you're at a shortage of miserable news stories, here's something else to worry about. According to a recent Federal Reserve paper, retiring baby boomers could sink the stock market over the coming decades.

Baby boomers are, of course, a large generation. And when that large group begins retiring en masse, they will liquidate assets. All that selling, the Fed reckons, will keep stock valuations low for the next two decades.

By a lot, too. "We find that the ... P/E ratio should decline from about 15 in 2010 to about 8.3 in 2025 before recovering to about 9 in 2030," the Fed writes.       

That's serious stuff. To state the obvious, if earnings double, yet the earnings multiple falls by half, stocks go nowhere.

The Fed's analysis is based on taking the ratio of two groups, the middle-age (40-49) and old-age (60-69) cohorts, and comparing it to the P/E ratio of the S&P 500. Over time, it found a connection:

Source: Federal Reserve.

And concludes:

[B]etween 1981 and 2000, as baby boomers reached their peak working and saving ages, the M/O ratio increased from about 0.18 to about 0.74. During the same period, the P/E ratio tripled from about 8 to 24. In the 2000s, as the baby boom generation started aging and the baby bust generation started to reach prime working and saving ages, the M/O and P/E ratios both declined substantially.

Extrapolating that trend out over the next two decades, and factoring in projected changes in age demographics, is how the Fed forecasts the drop in P/E ratios.

Scary stuff. But should you buy it?

I think there are two reasons to be skeptical.                    

Before we get there, there's an important point to make. There seems to be a notion that baby boomers depressing stock values is a disservice to younger generations. It's quite the opposite. If the Fed is right, it's the baby boomers who will suffer. Only those in the selling phase of their investment lifecycle should want high stock prices. Over the next 20 years, that's the baby boomers. Younger generations in the accumulation phase should love lower valuations.

But the Fed may very well be wrong.

First, its forecast rests on the fact that stock valuations were low in the 1980s, rising in the 1990s, and dropping in the 2000s -- and that changes in age demographics fit those time periods nicely. But regardless of what its models say, it seems a bit rich to say this was causation, rather than random correlation.

Above all else, stock valuations were low in the early 1980s because short-term interest rates were in the double digits. It didn't make sense to pay 10 times earnings for a stock when you could earn 15% in a money market account. And valuations were high in the 1990s because of a momentary lapse of sanity. Dot-com stocks didn't trade at a zillion times revenue because baby boomers were in their prime earning years; they traded that high because the world was stuck in a this-time-is-different mindset that pervades all bubbles. Declining valuations over the past 10 years have been a correction of that bubble. All of those events could have -- and likely would have -- played out regardless of demographics.

More broadly, the question of who baby boomers will sell their retirement assets to can, I think, be answered simply: the younger generations.

The baby boom generation is associated with being huge because it's considerably larger than generations before it. But those baby boomers had kids. Lots of them. There are now millions more Americans between age 20 and 35 than age 50 and 65. Broken out by generation, the U.S. has a fairly young population:

Age Cohort

Number of Americans (2010)

Percentage of Total Population

<20 83.2 million 27%
20-45 102.7 million 34%
45-70 91.8 million 30%
>70 26.6 million 9%

Source: Census Bureau.

This is hardly the face of a demographic time bomb. Far more Americans will be entering their prime earning years than will be entering retirement over the next two decades.             

Compare that to Japan, a country with a legitimate demographic nightmare:

Age Cohort

Number of Japanese (2009)

Percentage of Total Population

<20 23.5 million 18%
20-45 40.1 million 31%
45-70 42.3 million 33%
>70 21.6 million 17%

Source: Census Bureau's International Data Base.

And there's reason to think that today's younger generation will actually be more stock-oriented than their boomer parents. For older generations, the central road to retirement is a pension and Social Security. For younger generations, it's a 401(k) and a belief that Social Security will be gutted by the time they're eligible. The latter group will be far more dependent on private savings and -- importantly -- investment returns (pensions also invest in stocks, but a large part of current pension benefits are funded through capital injections).

Younger generations are already heading that way. Consider the new trend in automatic 401(k) enrollment, in which new employees are automatically pushed into a retirement plan, but can opt out if desired. In 2005, 5% of businesses used automatic enrollment. Today, 38% do. Not only are there more younger Americans than baby boomers, but that younger group may end up putting a larger percentage of their income into retirement assets. This again might help answer the question of who will buy baby boomers' stocks: their kids.

Maybe the Fed is right. As a member of the younger generation who will be accumulating stocks in the coming decades, I hope they are. But like most predictions of doom, it should be viewed with a level of skepticism. The future is usually better than the past. No reason to think that's changed.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 4:53 PM, TMFTypeoh wrote:

    As a young investor, I would LOVE a"new normal" p/e ratio around 8. That would be wonderful! Think about how easy and effective share buybacks would be. Think about how high dividend yield would be. People could compound wealth very nicely.

    Let's hope the fed is right!

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 5:11 PM, Borbality wrote:

    I think you're right. Either scenario is not the end of the world. Allocate accordingly based on your time frame!

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 5:25 PM, xetn wrote:

    If the Fed would butt out and leave the market to determine interest rates and return to "real" money such as gold, people could begin to save again and get real positive rates of return. Of course it would also be great if the IRS didn't believe it deserved a piece of every thing you own. (Just dreaming).

    As it now stands, the Fed will continue trying to maintain zero interest rate, by continuing to inflate the currency, so the US can finance its debt cheaply. Savers can now expect a negative interest rate and will need to pay tax on any nominal interest they do receive.

    This is off course, the reason that the boomers will be net sellers of stocks; price inflation and taxes.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 5:49 PM, dardarr wrote:

    One major point this article does not touch on is the fact that American stocks are not bought by just Americans, but by investors all over the world. A more appropriate analysis would be to use the percentage of individuals in each age bracket worldwide (and accounting for the relative wealth, or investing ability, of each country).

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 5:53 PM, maniladad wrote:

    Here is a rebuttal to all the negative financial and political news. I'm not sure whether it is just confirming the prejudices of long-term, Foolish investors or soothing the fears inevitably induced by constant exposure to doom and gloom forecasts and intimidating headlines. Either way every Foolish investor should read it periodically to remind him/herself that we live in extraordinary times.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 7:09 PM, devoish wrote:

    People with pensions seem to have retired comfortably.

    People with 401k's seem to have very little money in them.

    Todays college graduates have mountains of debt to pay before they can start buying stocks or houses.

    Todays non- college grads have no unions and low pay that will not support stock buying.

    And regardless of those substantial differences between now and then, if after 20 years of stock investing there is no-one to buy the boomers stocks, who will buy the boomlets stocks that they purchase from the boomers at such great value?

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 7:51 PM, inkstainedwretch wrote:

    I'm so using this next time my Mom says I don't call her enough.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 8:48 PM, hegibson wrote:

    Business is business. The economy has grown over the past number of decades and a lot of pseudo wealth has been created by the Fed printing more money and more money and more money. Much of that wealth has been invested in the stock markets and in a highly speculative way. Speculators need to make a quick buck. So, we have the bubbles. The boomer generation of which I am won't necessarily sell. Why should we? There will be some sell-off to access cash, but perhaps not wholesale like the scenario suggests.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 10:31 PM, ibuildthings wrote:

    Can the people the boomers sell stocks to pay the stock prices of today? Are there enough younger stock buyers with educations and careers, or are the boomers hoping minimum wage video-game kid workers and new families with no education and 5 kids will be saving for retirement?

    The older folks were taught to rely on themselves and so they planned for their futures. When their saving years rolled around, they poured money into their retirement plans, and even then, not enough to hear the news tell about it.

    The younger folks have been taught that it is the government's job to keep them going. So a lower percentage of them are working the dream at a high salary. Except folks who came from other places to go to grad school and decided to stay. High tech worker are the exception.

  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2011, at 10:43 PM, turtle975 wrote:

    If this is true and you are 35 to 45, your plan could be to buy stocks from Boomers, hold for 20 years, and sell them to the Boomers children.

    But, it is probably not true. The US represents about 4.5% of the world's population and a lot of the other 95.5% can also trade US stocks - and age distributions in the rest of the world vary. So the Boomer affect on the stock market, if any, may be insignificant compared to the rest of the world.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 12:10 AM, DonkeyJunk wrote:

    There will be someone to gobble up boomer's stocks. If not boomer children, it will be institutions expanding their already enormous portfolios.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 12:37 AM, ershler wrote:


    They also had to walk to school, uphill both ways, in waist deep snow with no shoes.


    If people don't have to pay taxes until they sell equities or take money out of their retirement accounts how are taxes the reason boomers well sell assets? Shouldn't this encourage them to hold them as long as possible?

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 1:54 AM, knownslacker wrote:

    According to the ERBI the average retirement savings (not net worth) for a person age 55-65 is $69,127. First of all, it is a huge assumption to make saying that they will liquidate their assets, many of these retirees or soon-to-be-retirees realize that liquidating their assets is not a smart move. Rather, they will (if they haven't already) move them into safe, dividend paying funds, pulling from them only if they have some sort of emergency. It doesn't make financial sense for them to take their money out of the stock market.

    If they do take their money out though, there is a young generation that has little faith in social security being able to support their retirements and thus are beginning to invest in 401(k)s. This shift of consciousness away from Governmental dependence to personal reliance will be made easier by lower market prices, especially in the more volatile areas of the stock market.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 2:23 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    I think it will be worse than predicted, because of the severe decline -- and in many places collapse -- of the real estate market. Home equity was an essential component of too many people's retirement plans, and what's worse, people were NEVER encouraged to maintain a decent cash cushion. That spells a forced sale of major assets at distressed prices.

    This has already happened to every elderly person I know, without exception, at some point during their retirement. If it didn't happen early, then it happened late, as health problems accumulated. Of course I am talking about affluent, "well diversified" investors who owned their own homes with little or no mortgage. Guess what -- it didn't matter. Something happened to them all.

    Every so often, a person should read Roubini and Taleb. It's a bracing experience.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 2:46 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    I read the Irrational Pessimism article:


    Did you see any mention of the pressure on unrenewable natural resources that these developments WILL cause?

    Or let's say that is too pessimistic. Let's just say that the effective global demand for all kinds of resources is going to grow.

    Does that, uh, worry you a little? Maybe?

    Or are you "sure" that "innovation" is going to prevent any temporary dislocation from doing serious damage to the U.S. economy? What makes you sure?

    Are you also sure that the dollar will remain the sole reserve currency in the world? That is a big reason why we can still maintain our standard of living. It's hardly clear that that will be true in 20 to 30 years.

    I frankly don't think that the educational system in the U.S. is sufficiently strong to produce large numbers of well-educated workers, and as the rest of the world develops, the U.S. will be less and less attractive to the best-educated workers from other countries. As for our own system, rather than being strengthened, it is being further undermined. Few talented people have any desire to teach, and the ones who do aren't being treated well or retained. Schools are looking for quick and cheap gimmicks rather than developing sound curricula. How do you figure that will work out?

    We haven't even gotten to rising rates of incarceration, substance abuse, obesity, and the human and financial cost of so many disabled veterans. That's all going to be okay, too? Great. Gotta love it.

    I don't know about you, but for me there is a limit to how many impossible things I can believe before breakfast.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 3:39 AM, bordereiver wrote:

    I am clearly a boomer, born in 53. I am not extremely rich, but rich enough I don't think I will ever "liquidate" my investments. The trustee of my estate will put those assets into the hands of my heirs. I think many more will do the same. Not everyone will have enough to avoid liquidating some assets in old age, but there are others with much more than my portfolio, and those larger portfolios may dwarf the smaller amounts of stocks who will need to aggressively liquidate monthly to live on. And even there will be over many years as we live longer than in the past.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 10:08 AM, ChandlerandCo wrote:

    I have been saying the exact same thing for years, except that it will be because of the boomer's decrease in spending on consumer goods, not the sale of their stock holdings.

    For example, the average age of a Harley-Davidson buyer is 46. The number of 46 year olds in the population peaked around 2007, and so did Harley's sales. Take a look at your own parents and grandparents and you'll probably see that they began spending much less on consumer goods once they reached their 60's.

    Of course, the younger generation will pick up much of the slack, but not all of it. The market should see mostly sideways movement for the next 10-12 years until the next generation begins reaching their peak earning/spending years around 2023.

    Accumulating quality dividend payers now (and reinvesting those dividends) would pay you to wait out the next 10-12 years, and form a great core portfolio for the next big rally, which should begin around 2023.

    Since the size of the younger generation dwarfs the boomers, the rally should last for many years.

    Prepare now, and be patient.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 10:49 AM, bullgrib wrote:

    Great. What else is the baby boomer generation going to do to destroy all prospects for future generations?

    They stood by as the government racked up a massive debt. They stood by as executive salaries ballooned and theirs stayed the same. They watched the US educational system fail their children and didn't care. They let their kids rack up huge amounts of debt to get college degrees that don't guarantee anything. They bought homes they couldn't afford and caused a financial crisis. They allowed our current generation to grow up with no sense of financial responsibility or goal in life.

    The baby boomers are the worst generation in the history of humanity. In a hundred years, historians will write books about how the baby boomer generation single-handedly started the slow decline of the United States.

    They have pushed all of their problems off onto the next generation, which is incapable of solving them now because the boomers ignored the educational system too.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 11:02 AM, hiddenflem wrote:

    From "the greatest generation" to "the worst generation"

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 12:38 PM, parkallee wrote:

    I'm worried about the huge amount of boomers who never held any jobs because they did not want to work for 'the man', who instead were basically semi retired through out their productive years, eeking out a living 'under the radar' somehow.

    Consequently they never contributed any money into the social security system, because they never paid any taxes, and now they are relying on government and states medicare/medicaid and disability programs to cover their skyrocketing health care costs associated with aging.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 1:11 PM, MindMatrix wrote:

    You are all idiots. The fed thinks it can project stock market price valuations into the future. These people can barely function in the present.

    There are many variables effecting the pricing of stocks - foreign investment being just one ( not effected by baby bummers) new technologies and business relationships will effect earnings and attitudes effecting stock prices. Of course if you are like me and realize the whole world of investing in stocks isn't wrapped neatly in the S and P 500 then this article is moot - now isn't it ?

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 1:59 PM, CMFTomBooker wrote:


    Holy spit. I have at least a dozen major bridges within driving distance of me. With you as pitchman, we could probably move the inventory and be beyond extradition, in a month or less. ;)

    Kidding. Great article, with some oblique, but well argued substantive angles.

    Here's the gig with Boomers (moi),.. as we have moved through the decades like the "pig through a python", we always change the established game. And the change is always closely associated with our collective gluttony and narcissism. Sufficiently punctuated with stupidity.

    Much as the paper on which the "The Theory of Efficient Markets" was written.. has been reduced to its much-deserved status as a poor quality substitute for Charmin.. we need to handicap the future, in the context of Boomers, with a fundamental understanding that it will neither be sensible, nor anticipated.

    Sensible behavior for Boomers would be to start reeling in risk right now, and then game Society so that low risk investments would be distinctively more productive, for the next 25 years, than in recent, past, or Medieval times.. (I include the Dark Ages because there is no part of recorded history, from which we won't resurrect a demonstrated dead-end ideology, if it serves our advantage. I offer as evidence, our institutionalizing of the current LandRenter Financial System. ;)

    So if Boomers cashing-out make sense?, I wouldn't worry about it.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2011, at 2:24 PM, efrisch1 wrote:

    Seems to me that the Fed is admitting that the general stock market is just a ponzi scheme and that the end game to that scheme is coming in 2025.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 2:48 AM, forexnutca wrote:

    Interest rates will determine the stock markets fate....if you can achieve 8% in a 10 year, you will see stocks adjust accordingly. If you see 2.3% like today with inflation running higher, stocks will always pose as the best possible investment especially with cash flows through dividends. Gold will not give you cash flow, but will only appreciate based on speculation.....possibly an alternative to paper money, but not to being invested in a well run business.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 12:07 PM, Scottiemac52 wrote:

    Sunny7039 should change his/her name to "Gloomy Gus" lol.

    First, there will be no mass market pull-out. My holdings are split among a traditional IRA, Roth IRA and brokerage account. I don't intend to touch the regular IRA until I have to in a dozen years. The Roth will likely end up going to my two kids as between us my spouse and I each have defined benefit pensions plus modest Social Security coming due. One of us is collecting at 62, the other is waiting until age 66.

    By next spring we will both be retired (ages 60, 59) and living on one pension plus non-retirement savings. We live very frugally and by the time we are both collecting all retirement income in 2018 we will have an after-tax income of almost 3 times what we're living on now. Except for a 2.99% HELOC where the minimum due is <$100 a month - and will be paid off in a couple of years - we are debt free.

    Not all boomers have left their kids financially illiterate. Mine are well on their way to security as they have been raised to live below their means, save like crazy and invest long term but with thought.

    The older one bought his house at age 22 and is planning to trade up to his "forever" house in a couple of years. Meanwhile he has locked in 4% for his mortgage, and reduced the term from 30 to 15 years. The younger is banking the $75K reenlistment bonus ($50K after taxes, paid out over 5 years) from the Navy (nuclear sub service) for post-military life. Some is in an emergency fund - they moved three times in a year due to transfers - and the rest is for the future.

    Yes, a lot of people will be hurting over the next 20-30 years, partly through no fault of your own. The biggest negatives to secure financial futures are divorce and poor health, followed by job loss. I have siblings that have experienced all three. But even they are managing, thanks to advance planning and thrifty ways.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 12:26 PM, CatFoodMoney wrote:

    Another great article. Thank you Morgan.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 2:16 PM, pastreet wrote:

    Biggest threat... inflation, hands down.


  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 4:27 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    I love how NO ONE answered my post -- the few people who addressed it said "Bad things won't happen to me." That, uh, isn't a plan.

    As far as being gloomy, unfortunately I'm exactly the opposite. It's true that people basically write what they themselves need to hear. I have always been overly optimistic, so I need to remind myself that yes, keeping several years of basic living expenses in cash and cash equivalents IS the right thing to do. I have to reread Nassim Taleb, and visit Nouriel Roubini's blog. This is what I need. Perhaps pep talks are what you need. I doubt it, though, You can get those everywhere, usually from the hucksters.

    As for, "bad things won't happen to me," well, that's just hubris. You don't know what will happen to you.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 4:38 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Okay, here's an example of exactly what I'm talking about:

    Here is someone who thinks a net worth of $182,000 is humongous. Mind you, this is net worth. Not net financial assets. This includes real estate. And we're talking about a context where the social safety net is essentially nonexistent.

    I'm sorry, but this is financial illiteracy. And I don't care if the "typical" family with a $182K net worth is still in their 30s. Whoever thinks this is "a lot of money" simply doesn't have a clue. One serious illness, and half of this is gone forever, with little prospect of getting it back.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 5:11 PM, traderxyz wrote:

    The problem is not about boomers and their retirement plan alone. Regardless of age, our problem is debt. We have borrowed for decades, we have inflated the money supply with debt. Economy is addicted to the influx of borrowed money. When borrowing stops, it causes deflation of credit as borrowers go bankrupt or pay back debt and nobody else borrows. It is Kondratieff Winter:

    We have borrowed from the future, and now the future is here. Pay back time has arrived. After prime borrowers were exhausted, we allowed sub-prime to keep the music playing. After subprime, uncle sam stepped up and borrowed and spent for us. Now uncle sam is reaching limits of it's ability to borrow. So is going to inflate the money supply? Bernanke? Don't bet your life on it. Deflation cannot be prevented after credit inflation runs it's course. Japan would have fixed it 20 years ago if it were that easy.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 5:40 PM, TimothyVR wrote:

    So 60-69 is now the "OLD AGE" group? What word do we use for those 80 and over? Fossils?

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2011, at 10:54 PM, GinaSB wrote:

    I reject the Fed's extrapolation as absurdly simplistic. Thinking of all the complexities that contribute to global economics, it seems absurd to predict metrics in the stock market two decades from now, based on a single factor such as aging baby boomers. anyway, of the Boomers who are currently invested in stocks, I suspect that most will seek to preserve principal and live off dividends rather than immediately cash it in upon retirement.

  • Report this Comment On August 29, 2011, at 9:32 PM, glenrgraham wrote:

    It is cynical for someone in the Federal Reserve? to predict the future death of the American stock market. Hopefully, the future is not so bleak. The lack of confidence in the future undermines our ability to think positively. There is a lack of leadership. Some schools have made attempts to educate young people about investments, business, and economic survival skills and some have not done enough.

  • Report this Comment On August 31, 2011, at 3:49 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Where else can a person get an truly different perspective?

    Just a few small notes: Sometimes to "preserve principal," you do have to cash in your stocks, even if they pay a great dividend.

    What should schools be "educating" the young about finances? Should schools be telling them to buy stock? Really? Or should they be taught to be "positive thinkers?" Is there solid evidence that this is true in some sense, or scientific, or good for them? How do you figure?

    Suppose you have no defined benefit pension, only Social Security. And suppose you need about $24,000 a year in addition to your SS. Not an astronomical sum. Suppose also that your stock dividends have an average 4% yield, which is pretty good right now. Turns out you'd better have $600,000 in that portfolio. Either that, or you'd better start selling some stock from time to time. Now suppose that a lot of people are in the "better start selling some stock" position. It won't necessarily trigger a huge selloff, but it might. The risks go up somewhat, especially if other not-so-great stuff is happening at the same time. Not so great stuff does tend to happen now and then.

    Let's just say that much.

    And BTW, what does Japan's Really Bad demographics have to do with anything? They save and they pool family resources, unlike us.

    Now, how does Japan looking worse demographically than the U.S. help the U.S.? Doesn't that mean there will be still fewer working people the world over who are in a position to buy stock in U.S. multinationals, or to keep large quantities of the savings they do have in U.S. and multinational stocks? You'd think so, no?

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2011, at 2:54 AM, esotericevets wrote:

    Sunny 7039: You are living in the world that is here. It is up to you to make of it what you will. To try to blame the Boomers for the present condition might serve you a little, but if you allow this blaming process to absorb you, you will likely label yourself a victim and in so doing become what you despise. In my case, I chose to seek out the truth that would nourish myself, my family, my community and the world at large. In short, I try to fix things. To fix things,

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2011, at 3:16 AM, esotericevets wrote:

    This thought stream posted in mid thought so I choose to take a tack.

    Last Year I went to a funeral of a young man (mid 20s) and found a celebration of a life that had been filled with fun. The man would be missed by his family and friends. No mention of a useful life lived. It was sad beyond belief.

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