As Dow sinks, retirement fades into distance

Shrinking investments, and general uncertainty, have caused many Americans to rethink their long-term plans.

Just before stocks hit their peak in March 2000, Leslie Wier and her husband sat down with pencil and paper and figured out that their golden years would begin in January 2003.

Three more years of 15 to 20 percent annual growth in their stock portfolio didn't seem an unreasonable expectation; after all, that's what the '90s had delivered.

Then the Dow Jones juggernaut threw a rod. Although the Wiers have mostly avoided risky technology issues, their holdings are down 15 percent - and so are their chins. Despite the fact that both will draw pensions, retirement suddenly looks as if it's accelerating away from them.

"We were in a wait-and-see mode prior to Sept. 11, then that just exacerbated the situation," says Ms. Wier, a financial analyst. "I'm sure I'll be working when 2003 rolls around, and after that, who knows?... I'm definitely thinking about postponing retirement."

She's not the only one. The worst stock market bust in a generation, combined with the fear, uncertainty and doubt spawned by the Sept. 11 attack and its aftermath, has caused a seismic shudder among 50- and 60-somethings. By the tens of thousands, they - and even younger workers - are reconsidering when they'll retire, how they'll retire, and even if they'll retire.

The market swoon has frayed nerves, tattered portfolios, and shaken confidence, even as it has swallowed about $4 trillion in paper wealth in 2001 alone. As a result, near-retirees are temporarily shelving lifelong dreams of retirement homes in the Sun Belt and long-deferred trips to Paris.

At the same time, economists and social scientists are attempting to gauge the impact of hundreds of thousands of unanticipated hangers-on in the workplace - particularly at a time when layoffs are rampant and unemployment is on the rise.

"If anyone had in their minds they could retire under the assumption their nest egg would grow at a 15 to 20 percent rate indefinitely - those assumptions have been rocked to the core," says Stephen Leeb, editor of the newsletter Personal Finance.

Retiring by 70 ... maybe

In January 2000, when he was 61, Jim Hurt, a computer software engineer from Cincinnati, estimated he would attain a total asset value in four years that would provide him with a comfortable retirement.

But in the past 18 months, the value of his portfolio has plummeted, falling further than he cares to disclose. He now calculates that it will take him at least seven to eight years to hit his financial target.

That's if he finds another job right away - he's just been laid off - and if the stock market returns to historic growth rates. Mr. Hurt was "more or less considering" working until he turns 70, but now, he says, "I don't consider it an option so much as a necessity."

The effects of the third-worst market downturn in the past century - right behind the Great Depression and the recession of 1973-'74 - are compounded by the widespread ownership of stock today and the changing nature of retirement funding. Until recently, the market represented a larger chunk of household assets than homes - for first time in the nation's history.

Moreover, retirement is increasingly funded by 401(k)s, individual retirement accounts, and Keoghs, rather than pensions. That means that many Americans have no backup funds beyond Social Security if their investments go sour.

Near-retirees are also looking at what they see as a double whammy. Not only are stocks down, so are interest rates, which means anyone looking to migrate out of growth stocks and into less risky fixed-income investments is faced with CDs paying less than 3 percent - almost half the rate of a year ago, and far short of the 10 percent rate of returns the stock market historically has earned.

Still, not everyone is bemoaning the bear market. Susan Wendel, an investment adviser with St. Louis-based Edward Jones, says she is constantly rebalancing clients' portfolios to reflect up-and-down markets and clients proximity to retirement. In the case of the latter, she advises clients to move toward income generation, including dividend-paying stocks, and says that with proper planning, a 20 percent correction should not upset a solid retirement strategy.

"There's definitely fear amongst investors, but it's our job to refocus them," says Ms. Wendel. "Long term, the economy is in fantastic shape. We have to get through the cycle, focus on long-term goals, and continue to invest with that in mind. If we can do that, I don't believe our clients' retirement plans need be affected."

But not everyone has the freedom - or income - to balance their assets with advice from the pros. Liza Hendricks, a former project manager, and her husband, an electronics worker in Texas, were contemplating early retirement a couple of years ago.

She has carefully managed the family funds for eight years, but their portfolio is down some 40 percent from the peak, due largely to the fact that her husband's company's retirement plan would not allow them to sell plunging corporate stock.

"We're pretty confident our retirement plans are only delayed two or three years," says Ms. Hendricks. "But the fear level is rising again with the latest [anthrax] attacks, so we can't be certain - of anything."

A generation caught unprepared

Some financial experts say that privileged baby boomers, the beneficiaries of unprecedented affluence, were headed for a retirement fall even before the onset of the bear market.

Most of the nation's 75 million overspending and undersaving baby boomers are woefully unprepared for retirement, says Bill Gustafson, executive director of the Center for Financial Responsibility at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

"Most of the boomers think they're going to retire and enjoy the same lifestyle they do now," Mr. Gustafson says.

"I got news for them: Most will end up living half or a third as well as they do now. Their desire for gratification won't diminish with retirement, but they won't have the income to pay for it."

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