By Tim McLaughlin
BOSTON (Reuters) - Nancy Farrington, a retiree who turns 75 next month, admits to being in a constant state of anxiety over the biggest December stock market rout since Herbert Hoover was president.
"I have not looked at my numbers. I'm afraid to do it," said Farrington, who recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, from Boston. "We've been conditioned to stand pat and not panic. I sure hope my advisers are doing the same."
Retirees are worrying about their nest eggs as this month's sell-off rounds out the worst year for stocks in a decade, and some fear they are headed for a day of reckoning like the 2008 market meltdown or dot-com crash of the early 2000s.
Retirees have less time to recover from bad investment moves than younger workers. If they or their advisers panic and sell during a brief downturn, they may lock in a more meager retirement. But their portfolio could be even more at risk if they hold on too long in a prolonged decline.
"I have no way of riding it out if that happens," said Farrington. "I can feel the anxiety in my stomach all the time."
While many industrialized countries still have generous safety nets for retirees, pensions for U.S. private-sector workers largely have been supplanted by 401(k) accounts and other private saving plans. That means millions of older Americans are effectively their own pension managers.
Workers in countries like Belgium, Canada, Germany, France and Italy receive, on average, about 65 percent of their income replaced by mandatory pensions. In the Netherlands the ratio of benefits to lifetime average earnings is abut 97 percent, according to a 2017 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report.
The OECD says the comparable U.S. replacement rate from Social Security benefits is about 50 percent.
U.S. retirees had watched their private accounts mushroom during a bull stock market that began in early 2009. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve kept interest rates near zero for years, enticing retirees deeper into stocks than previous generations as investments like certificates of deposit, government bonds and money-market funds generated paltry income.
At the end of 2016, 69 percent of investors in their 60s had at least 40 percent of their 401(k) portfolio invested in stocks, up from 65 percent in 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington.
Still, fewer have gone all in on stocks in recent years. Just 19 percent had more than 80 percent of their 401(k) invested in stocks in 2016, down from 30 percent at year-end 2007, according to nonprofit research group EBRI.
"Nothing has gone wrong, but it seems the market is trying to figure out what could go wrong," said Brooke McMurray, a 69-year-old New York retiree who says she became a finiancial news junkie after the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
"Unlike before, I now know what I own and I constantly read up on my companies," she said.
The three major U.S. stock indexes have tumbled about 10 percent this month, weighed by investor worries including U.S.-China trade tensions, a cooling economy and rising interest rates, and are on track for their worst December since 1931.
The S&P 500 is headed for its worst annual performance since 2008, when Wall Street buckled during the subprime mortgage crisis. But some are not quite ready to draw comparisons.
"We had lousy forecasts in 2008. The housing market was in a tailspin," said 76-year-old John Bauer, who worked for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing Co for 36 years in St. Louis. "Today, employment is way up. The housing market is steady and corporations are flush."
Still, Bauer said he is uneasy about White House leadership. He and several other retirees referenced U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's recent calls to top bankers, which did more to rattle than assure markets. U.S. stocks tumbled more than 2 percent the day before the Christmas holiday.
Nevertheless, Bauer is prepared to ride out any market turmoil without making dramatic moves to his retirement portfolio.
"When it's up, I watch it. When it's down, I don't," he said.
And there are some factors helping take the sting out of the market rout, said Larry Glazer, managing partner of Boston-based Mayflower Advisors LLC.
"Retirees are sensitive to energy prices," Glazer said. "We saw a big decline before the holidays. That's good for the broad economy and there's nothing more psychologically supportive than cheap energy prices."
Oil prices were hovering near 18-month lows after a week of volatile trading. [O/R]
Rising interest rates have also helped retirees generate more income from their portfolios, Glazer said.
New York-based writer John Morris, 61, recently wrote his financial adviser "I don't feel so flush," after reading his retirement account statement on Dec. 18.
“I’m not freaking out this week because I have enough savings that in the early years of retirement I would be fine," Morris said. Still, he is concerned about the job market and possibly staying employed until he is 70.
Morris worries about a costly long retirement, given his mother lived until almost 90 and his father was nearly 96 when he died.
“The question is, 'Will I have enough money to get me to 96?'"
(Reporting By Tim McLaughlin; Additional reporting by Suzanne Barlyn. Editing by Neal Templin and Meredith Mazzilli)