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How to Solve the Millennial Investor Problem

US News & World Report -  Money logo US News & World Report - Money 12/20/2017 Brian O'Connell
Germany, Berlin, arbeiten im modernen Umfeld, Büro, Kreativität: Many young investors suffer from a lack of financial literacy and debt overload. © (Getty Images) Many young investors suffer from a lack of financial literacy and debt overload.

Why are so many younger investors either disinterested or outright in the dark about their own 401(k)s and retirement portfolios? According to an October study by Wells Fargo, more than 50 percent of millennials say they will "never be comfortable" in the stock market.

"Millennials are facing significant debt and say their financial life is generally not satisfying," says Kristi Mitchem, chief executive officer of Wells Fargo Asset Management. "Money is probably the area they don't want to grapple with."

Mitchem says that if Wall Street can "change this mindset and expand the population of millennials who engage with their money," they will reap the rewards of greater happiness – and at the same time, put themselves on a better financial footing.

[See: 7 of the Best Stocks to Buy for 2018.]

"Taking a more proactive stance with money is not necessarily dependent on having more money. Millennials should start to engage as soon as they start earning money and employers and financial service firms can help push this effort forward," she says.

The indifference problem is a real one for younger Americans – one that is hitting way too many of them where it hurts – in the pocketbook, according to the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, which provided data for the study.

"While some millennials do have concerns about investing in the stock market, investors who were invested in the U.S. stock market in March of 2009 would have realized a cumulative gain (including dividends) of 190.7 percent on their investment at the close of second quarter 2017, a period of more than eight years," the study reports. "For illustrative purposes, if a 24-year-old started to invest $600 a year ($50 a month) in March of 2009 in a total U.S. equity market index fund, he/she would have $8,901 at the end of second quarter 2017."

So, what's the problem? And, more importantly, what can the financial sector and employers do to get younger investors more engaged with their investments?

Actually, there are several.

Millennials take a generic approach to saving. One area of concern is that younger investors don't drill down into investing strategies, and thus develop a "generic" approach to money management that's a damaging one. "Most investors see general reference points," says Mark Carruthers, a certified financial planner at Genworth Representative in Congers, New York. "For example, they'll see Vanguard as a solid company. They may not know which fund they own, they just believe Vanguard is a good investment. That's akin to saying, I own a Ford. It's a very generic point-of-view."

[See: 10 Reasons Why New Investors Should Enter the Market.]

Millennials lack financial knowledge. "There is a lack of financial literacy, and it's not limited only to younger investors," says Rajan Chopra, a former Wall Street derivatives trader and current executive coach. "Financial literacy education should be mandatory in schools, colleges and places of employment, and financial advisors should include as their fiduciary responsibility to objectively educate their clients."

Millennials carry too much debt. "Millennials simply aren't afforded the same financial freedom and comfort as their predecessor generations," says Caleb Backe, a millennial investor, and marketing manager for a beauty products company. "While the gross domestic product and stock market are on the rise, that does little to stop the bleeding for millennials in terms of debt from student loans, credit cards and other systematic necessities."

Backe says that, while baby boomers, for example, were debt free in their late-20's and thus free to focus on financial planning and saving, millennial concerns are far more pressing. "The notion of investment and retirement planning is more of a dream than a reality when you're living paycheck to paycheck, which is the status quo for many millennials saddled with debt and faced with a competitive job market. "It's hard to know the top stocks in your portfolio when you can't afford one."

Wall Street carries some blame, too. Even though many investment professionals stand up and say millennials deserve all the help the financial industry can provide, some experts steer blame toward Wall Street.

"It's a symptom of a larger problem where people of all ages, including millennials, feel disenfranchised by Wall Street, where some people make a lot more than average," says John Brandy, a financial consultant and founder of Open Mind Generations, in Redmond, Washington. "I spent 12 years as a full-service broker and also as a wealth manager, and I found many people didn't know what they had or even how aggressively or conservatively they were allocated, in spite of their stated preferences and risk tolerance.

[See: The Top 10 Investment Portfolio for Millennials.]

"There is no question that retirement without investment is at best unlikely," Brandy says. "The question is how to do it responsibly and intelligently without overpaying Wall Street."

Ultimately, it's up to younger Americans to get a better grip on their investment portfolios and become more engaged with their long-term financial stability. The risks are too high in not doing so, and the rewards are abundant – but only if millennials ditch the excuses and start getting their financial act together.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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