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The real toll of the volatile stock market: Americans’ retirement

It’s not a Washington crisis yet, but the impact is coming faster than you think

A monitor displays the day’s final numbers after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 27. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A monitor displays the day’s final numbers after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 27. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

OPINION — “I’m taking a beatin’ on my retirement funds. I’m sure I’m not the only one.”

Those feelings expressed by a 70-something retiree in a recent Midwestern focus group reflect a growing concern among average Americans about their ability to retire — and retire comfortably — in the aftermath of one of the worst Decembers in stock market history.

Much of the focus over the past few weeks has been on the government shutdown and the crisis at the southern border. That focus isn’t likely to change until a compromise is reached and the government reopens.

Finding a solution to our outdated and ineffective immigration system is important to both our national security and the nation’s economic future. But over the past month, millions of people have undergone a real scare about their economic future — their retirement. Both parties are going to have to address the issues affecting people’s ability to retire, given the roller-coaster ride that Wall Street has become and the increasing cost-of-living pressures in an era of living paycheck to paycheck.

A Wall Street Journal analysis last year found that more than “40% of households headed by people aged 55 through 70 lack sufficient resources to maintain their living standard in retirement.”

That’s a frightening statistic for a country watching around 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, plagued with high debt levels and fewer younger workers to cover Social Security costs. A combination of societal and economic factors has created this increasingly serious situation.

A 2014 Pew Research Center analysis found that 52 percent of people in their 60s were financially responsible for either a parent or an adult child. That’s 17.4 million seniors, with 1.2 million of them supporting both. For many, paying that family tab means dipping into their retirement funds.

Add to that those hit with unexpected health care costs, education debt and, of course, the 2008 economic collapse and now the 2018 stock market losses, and it shouldn’t surprise policymakers that retirement is becoming a more immediate issue.

Also watch: What really happens during a government shutdown, explained

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‘Changing the calculus’

Retirement pressures have been an “under-the-radar” concern for some time. Washington has known a retirement crunch was coming, but solutions to help relieve those pressures have been sidelined to deal with urgent, time sensitive challenges — both foreign and domestic — from job creation and wage growth to health care costs.

But the extreme volatility of the markets and its impact on retirees and those about to retire is changing the calculus, and the calendar, for those responsible for crafting retirement solutions. For many people, December’s precipitous stock market drop was nothing less than an unnerving and unwelcome return to the emotional turmoil that so many Americans experienced in the fall of 2008 and early 2009.

Clearly, people are still struggling to make ends meet, but the recent loss of retirement savings tied up in the markets is the newest element in the cost-of-living debate, one that’s beginning to affect people’s view of the economy.

Over the past month, our Winning the Issues survey found that attitudes about the economy are still positive but have softened. In the December survey, 45 percent said the economy was headed in the right direction while 35 percent said it was off on the wrong track — still a good result. But the trend line is concerning. When asked the same question in the postelection survey, people were more positive, coming in at 51 percent (right direction) to 32 percent (wrong track). But at the end of November, it had slipped to 48 percent (right direction) to 34 percent (wrong track), and now to 45 percent to 35 percent.

Given the recent volatility in the stock market, we asked voters in our December survey to tell us which of the following statements best described the personal impact of the market downturn. Twenty-eight percent said they had been “personally impacted;” 32 percent said they had not been affected but were seriously concerned they might be; and 29 percent called the Wall Street decline seriously concerning but said it would not likely impact them.

But when put in the context of retirement, four in ten respondents (39 percent) told us that, given the recent stock market declines, they believed they would have to work a few more years than they had originally anticipated. Another 39 percent said they were seriously concerned about whether they would ever be able to retire.

A crisis looms

The impact of this past December’s record-setting volatility and losses in the markets shouldn’t be underestimated. CNN Business called it “the worst December since 1931.”

In a recent RealClearPolitics opinion piece, the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore and Alfredo Ortiz, head of the Job Creators Network, warned that “Americans have lost well over $4 trillion in wealth.”

How much of that $4 trillion loss dampened the retirement hopes and dreams of millions of Americans? That’s a number we don’t have, but it’s probably safe to assume that for those in retirement or nearing retirement, this was a major financial setback.

There was a time when saving for retirement was a much simpler endeavor. Today, trying to pay for mom’s assisted living costs and pay off huge student loans or helping grandpa keep his house and meet your own mortgage is keeping too many Americans from putting away the funds they need for a secure retirement.

It may not be a Washington crisis yet, but the issue of people’s underfunded retirements should be. Its impact is coming faster than we think.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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