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Roller Coaster Riders

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I think most people find that their childhood love of roller coasters tends to fade as they grow older.

When you’re a kid and you go to an amusement park, there’s always the hope that you’ll be able to stake a claim to the first car and thereby experience the ups and downs to a much greater degree than anyone else on the ride. And often it’s “Look, ma, no hands!”

But as I said, being thusly enamored with the thrills and spills of something like the Thunderbolt or the Tornado (at the Coney Island of my childhood) tends to dwindle as one embraces the charms of good old down-to-earth stability and a stomach that’s not thrown out of whack by one or more precipitous dives.

Yet, isn’t it funny how millions upon millions of Americans have gone in the opposite direction when it comes to investing, particularly when it comes to investing their retirement funds? By pouring so much money into equities over the last couple of decades, Americans have said in effect that they are willing to continue riding roller coasters, no matter what their age.

They have embraced the ups and downs with a vengeance. After all, if you voluntarily decide to ride a roller coaster you know you are going to experience the thrill of mounting to a peak and the complementary sensation (where the real thrill is) of a steep fall. You’ve said OK to volatility as a way of life.

But there is volatility and then there is VOLATILITY. While many people may be prepared to deal with the former, I don’t know how many people investing for retirement have the stomachs of steel that you need to deal with the latter.

And, indeed, we seem to be in one of these latter periods now, when outrageous market swings are the order of the day. Perhaps this is a function of a system that basically functions on the twin engines of greed and fear. But I have to admit that it doesn’t build my confidence in the market one iota to see the Dow going up 150 points one day only to go down 180 the next and to go back up 130 the day after that.

It’s one of those periods where investors latch. That is, they latch on to the tiniest bit of good news as an excuse for irrational exuberance (as the Sybil of Delphi once said) or the slightest bit of bad news as a reason to throw stuff overboard in the most willy-nilly fashion.

This kind of frenetic back and forth movement must benefit somebody (traders most likely) but for the rest of us it comes down to avoiding investing whiplash if we can. Just pop another Gelusil.

I feel sorry for those people just on the cusp of retirement now who are facing a timeframe of 20 or 30 or more years of living off their accumulated retirement savings. If they take a big hit now at the beginning of this timeframe it will have pretty serious effects for years and perhaps decades to come.

And a lot of these same people are also the ones who have much of their net worth tied up in the home they own and were expecting to sell. A tough time for the housing market to crater.

Against this backdrop, there’s a lot to be said for guarantees in annuity and life insurance products. It’s not that one wants to live a life where everything is guaranteed, but it’s also nice to know that in the course of life’s sometimes bumpy ride, there is the equivalent (the refuge, if you will) of good old terra firma.


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