As elders' investment horizons widen, perspective is needed

``Just go down and count the number of branch offices of major brokerages that have opened on the west coast of Florida.'' That's one way Perrin Long, vice-president at Lipper Analytical Services, measures the growing interest in America's senior citizens by the financial services industry.

In just the last few years, this industry seems to have discovered what it believes is a vast untapped resource of investment funds -- and commissions.

In apparent contradiction of stories about the elderly poor, a growing number of people over 65 not only have enough money to live on, they have enough to invest.

But this makes them targets of opportunity -- and possible victims -- in the hotly competitive world of brokers, financial planners, and investment advisers who have many new products to sell.

``We're finding older people with more and more money, for a variety of reasons,'' says Mark Bass, a financial planner in Lubbock, Texas.

The reasons can include the lump-sum distribution of a pension or company-sponsored savings plan; an increasing share of people who own their homes outright and so have more cash to spend; a lifetime of accumulated savings; or the proceeds from the sale of a small business.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the notion of a growing population of affluent elderly.

``There's a myth floating around that senior citizens have suddenly become fat cats,'' says Steven Mehlman, spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons.

Some statistics that purportedly show more affluence among the elderly begin by including people as young as age 50, he contends. ``But when you just take people 65 and over, the picture begins to change dramatically.''

Rather than more money among the elderly, he contends, there is more attention being paid to the elderly's money. Even if that is the case, it is true that the elderly today have many more investment choices that will give them income, some appreciation, and -- most important -- safety.

A few years ago, the choices where pretty much limited to United States government debt instruments, bank certificates of deposit, and a few mutual funds.

Today, there are several hundred new mutual funds, new insurance products, more limited partnerships, and a variety of new savings vehicles at banks and thrifts. But the strategies for using any of the new or old products should be the same as before, financial experts say.

``First, you've got to leave yourself with enough cash on hand,'' says Anthony F. Nicoletti, senior vice-president and manager of retirement planning servives at Advest Inc., a brokerage.

``So many people working with the elderly don't leave them with enough cash. If your car keeps having trouble, you should be able to go out and buy a new one. If your roof starts to leak, you should be able to fix it without having to sell off investments.

``The bottom line is, you've got to feel comfortable. You shouldn't have to worry about what the stock market is doing or where interest rates are going to meet your immediate cash needs.''

``The major mistake seniors make is investing all their cash,'' Mr. Bass agrees. Many brokers and financial advisers, presented with a client who suddenly has a large lump of cash to deal with, often tells the client to begin investing all of it at once. This is a mistake, he maintains.

``I would be wary of any adviser who told you to put all your money to work at one time,'' he says. ``You're betting on one economic point in time,'' that is, making investment decisions based on today's economic and business picture when the future picture could be much different.

Instead, Bass says, he would put no more than half, possibly less, in various investments now.

For example, if someone received $200,000 from the sale of a business, only $80,000 or $90,000 would be invested right away; the rest would be put in money market accounts, CDs, and other cash equivalents. ``Sometimes we only commit 25 percent, depending on the temperament of the client.''

Not only does this hedge your bets for future economic changes, it also helps you resist someone's urgings to ``put all your money to work'' in a variety of investments.

Finding the right someone is quite important, too, Mr. Nicoletti says. Some brokers and financial advisers watch for notices of retirements, business sales, or anything else that might find them a possible client with a big lump of money. Then they start calling.

``Don't go with the first person you hear from or the first one who's referred to you,'' he advises. ``Ask questions. Get them to ask questions'' about your goals, risk tolerance, and income needs.

Looking at some specific investment options, Nicoletti begins with a few mutual funds that have a long record of high yields and safety. These include the American Capital Government Fund, the Franklin US Government Fund, the Keystone B-4 corporate bond fund, and Putnam's High Yield Fund, another corporate bond fund.

For pinning down additional income, Nicoletti sees nothing wrong with some of the limited partnerships that emphasize income over tax savings. Without mentioning any partnerships specifically, he says he would look primarily for real estate partnerships from sponsors with a long track record. He would avoid oil drilling partnerships, where tax write-offs are more likely than income.

Bass would also put a small portion in real estate limited partnerships for people who want income and capital appreciation. ``The main thing is to have some increase in purchasing power,'' he says. He also likes government-securities mutual funds.

One of the biggest problems many investors face, particularly older investors, is the practice of ``churning'' an account, where a broker or investment adviser continually buys and sells securities. The goal here is to generate commissions, not to make money for the client.

``You've got to read your statements,'' Nicoletti urges. ``Look for evidence of lots of buying and selling without your knowledge.''

Finally, Mr. Long at Lipper has some sound advice for senior citizens trying to make the most out of a windfall -- which could be more money than they've ever seen before:

``Don't try to reach for the highest yield possible,'' he cautions. ``Be careful of products where someone promises you a yield of 200 basis points [2 percent] over 30-year Treasury bonds. You can't just keep reaching higher and higher. You may find yourself walking off the end of the gangplank.''

If you have a question that would make a good subject for this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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