“How should I invest my money?”
I invariably get this question when people learn that I’m an economist. I do my best to answer, but only after listing a standard set of disclosures, including that much depends on the person’s investment horizon and tolerance for financial risk.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a great question, particularly now when it seems all but impossible to get a reasonable return on any investment. Interest rates are incredibly low, with yields on Treasury bonds that mature 30-years from now hovering around 2%. This means you will get a much lower rate on most certificates of deposits and other savings accounts.
As a reminder, inflation is also about 2%. This means that if you plunk your money down on a CD, you won’t be able to purchase as much when that CD matures, even though you get your money back with interest. This is a big problem, particularly for older people who prudently don’t want to take risks and thus have put their money into these government-insured saving vehicles.
Although that’s disconcerting, we have it much better than the Europeans and Japanese. Interest rates in those parts of the world are negative. Deposit your money with a bank there, and you will be lucky the bank doesn’t charge you for the “privilege.” Now that is mind-numbing.
What about the stock market? If you are less than 50 years old, then absolutely yes. With a long-term investment horizon of more than a decade, you shouldn’t pay attention to the nerve-wracking ups-and-downs in stock prices, since you should have no plans to touch that money for a long time. Over the long haul, stock prices will increase at about the pace of growth in the profits of large American companies, which will likely be in the mid-single digits.
Don’t try to time those ups-and-downs in stock prices. You will invariably be wrong. The stock market swings on inherently unpredictable events (such as the president’s Twitter feed) and raw emotion that can shift from wild optimism to abject pessimism literally overnight. Consistently investing in stocks through thick and thin is a much better strategy.
It is also probably wise to invest in stock index funds, which were popularized by one of the Philadelphia region’s largest employers, Vanguard, and are available from other good companies, as well. Index funds invest in the stocks of many companies, providing you with maximum diversity, a key to good stock investing. Index funds are also very cheap to invest in, and that is critically important when returns are so low.
However, if you are over the age of 50, and particularly over 60, stock investing makes less financial sense. Many in this baby boom cohort don’t have the financial resources to ride out a significant and sustained decline in stock prices. They didn’t save enough when they were younger, and they were stung by the bursting Y2K tech-stock bubble and the collapse of the housing bubble a decade ago.
Investing in the stock market is particularly intrepid now with recession as a threat in the investment horizon of most boomers. Especially worrisome are President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, the mounting threat of a no-deal Brexit, and the risk of higher oil prices given recent drone attacks on Saudi oil fields. Stock prices always fall sharply as investors anticipate an economic downturn. With retirement approaching, it is not the time to be taking on these risks.
Talk about risk. Investors are taking on boatloads of it when they shell out U.S. dollars for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether. Crypto prices have surged over the last several years as they have captured the imagination of global speculators. If you bought crypto a few years ago and held on to it, you are sitting pretty today. But these currencies have no underlying value, at least not here in the U.S., and their prices ultimately will reflect that. We don’t know when crypto-owners will figure this out. When they do, watch out below.
Finally, this leaves housing. And here is an investment that makes financial sense, particularly now with fixed mortgage rates below a historically low 4%. Housing isn’t quite as attractive an investment as it was before last year’s tax cuts, which reduced the tax breaks on property taxes and the interest paid on mortgages. But it remains the best way for most people to build wealth in the long run.
Philadelphia’s housing market adds to the attraction. Much of the region is enjoying solid house price growth. A correction sometime soon in some of the hottest neighborhoods wouldn’t be a surprise, but that’s something to look beyond. The longer-term prospects for Philadelphia’s economy and housing market are bright.