- Stock market returns have been extraordinary, with the S&P 500 Index up close to 30% in 2021.
- Market experts say this level of equities gains is abnormal and a lower return world of investing is on the horizon, but many newer investors have only known the recent, and longest, bull market in history.
- Inflation and a Fed rate tightening cycle could pressure the market in 2022, but younger investors are the most likely to say they expect the economy to remain strong and U.S. stock market gains to be above 10% next year.
If the millennial and Gen Z investing generations' biggest, boldest bull market calls are best represented by the star turn of ARK Funds' Cathie Wood, her funds' struggles in 2021 are a microcosm of where risk-on investing runs into the reality of a market that, at least in the short-term, can't always go gangbusters — or even up.
Americans born into the millennial and Gen Z generations came of age as investors — and some millennials, now in their fourth decade of life, also into considerable wealth — during a period of extremely muted inflation and a decade-plus bull market. If they have never known a Cathie Wood stock call that can go south, inflation as the No. 1 topic of concern for the economy is a new experience for them as well. And fears of an inflationary environment the U.S. has not seen since the 70s and early 80s isn't only new to them in the form of rising prices. The low-inflation world contributed to a high return world for growth stocks that is now being threatened, and that leads to a question about whether young investors have enough experience with the inevitable ups and downs of the stock market.
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Are young investors prepared to see double-digit equity market gains as the exception, rather than the rule, for the S&P 500?
Not yet, according to a recent survey of millionaire investors conducted by CNBC.
The bi-annual CNBC Millionaire Survey finds the youngest among America's wealthy investors much more bullish and aggressive headed into 2022 than their investing peers from older generations. While the overall outlook from millionaires on the economy and stock market is "barely bullish," according to the survey data, millennials see major potential for stocks gains and continued interest in risk-on trades including cryptocurrencies.
By the numbers:
- 48% of millennials expect to increase their crypto investments in the next 12 months.
- For many, that is a doubling down on crypto, as the survey finds more than half of the millennial millionaires said at least half of their wealth is in crypto.
- 52% of millennials think the S&P 500 will be up by at least 10% next year (39% are even more bullish, expecting those gains to be above 15%). This is more than triple any other generation's expectation for stock gains over the next 12 months.
- 61% of millennials believe the economy will be much stronger next year; in all 93% believe the economy will be stronger, versus 41 percent for all millionaires.
The CNBC Millionaire Survey was conducted by Spectrem Group and surveyed 750 Americans with investable assets of $1 million or more. Caveat: Millennials are by far the smallest demographic sample in the survey. With the least time among generations to accumulate wealth, it follows there are many more Gen X, baby boomer and World War II millionaires in the data to accurately map the millionaire population of the U.S. The CNBC Millionaire Survey presents a snapshot of millennial millionaires, but it is only 31 out of the 750 wealthy Americans surveyed.
"Millennials are not a huge sample," said Tom Wynn, director of research at Spectrem Group. "It's enough to get some direction, but not huge, and we find that always in our surveys, they are way out there. I don't know whether they are idealistic or just have an unrealistic view of things, but they are always extremely different," he said.
Inflation, the Fed, stocks, and "stonks"
Some of the differences between millennials and the rest of the survey audience are stark. Inflation is the No. 1 economic concern among millionaires in the survey, while the millennial millionaire subset isn't worried about it at all. And that finding highlights the generational nuances in the data and the question of whether younger investors are prepared for what inflation — and a Fed worried about inflation — can do to the stock market.
Lew Altfest, CEO of Altfest Personal Wealth Management, said most investors do think that in a Fed rate tightening cycle there is a greater chance of a correction next year, and overall, a lower return from the market.
Fed rate hike cycles haven't been disastrous, but they have not been very good for stocks. Across the 17 previous Fed tightening cycles back to World War II, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 Index have struggled to post gains, according to CFRA Research. "Minor price increases for the equity market," according to CFRA chief investment strategist Sam Stovall. In the 12-month period once the Fed starts raising rates at least three times, the S&P 500 rose a median of approximately 3.5%, and whether it gained or lost in any single period was little better than a coin flip: stocks gained in price 56% of the time.
The 1970s period of inflation was known as a "lost decade" for stocks because the compound annual growth rate in the S&P 500 was 1.6% — the index posted a 5.8% total return, but that is including dividends being reinvested and accounting for over 4% of the gain.
"They're not thinking of double-digit returns and they are hoping they don't get retribution for higher stock market prices," Altfest said, referring to the price-to-earnings ratios which value-oriented investors such as himself find difficult to justify. "Value will have a run ... stocks are going to go back to what are reasonable rates," he said. "The question is the timing."
A big millennial mistake and the market
There is some merit to the discussion about younger investors and inflation, says Doug Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth, a wealth advisory firm, and a millennial himself. "The generation has not experienced an inflationary environment, and a boomer will be quick to point to 70s and 80s. When I talk to my own dad he doesn't necessarily have the best memories of the 70s and 80s from an investment standpoint. Even myself, as an older millennial, I can't recall investing or living through a non low-interest rate environment, so there's something to say there."
But this doesn't mean he thinks 1970s-style inflation is about to repeat itself, and millennials may live in a world which they know is less likely to repeat that experience. "Anyone saying it's going to be the 70s or 80s all over again, I'm not buying it. It's a different world," Boneparth said. "You didn't have the internet or Amazon bringing goods to your door in 48 hours. It's hard for young people to relate to what they do know historically about high inflation regimes," he added.
Even though millennials did not cite inflation as a risk to the economy, millennials in the survey were almost evenly split with 45% saying inflation would be temporary and 48% saying it would last a long time. This split within the generation itself brings to mind a point Boneparth says needs to be made when we start talking about "millennials": the idea that millennials are a monolithic generation is a mistake.
"There are 80 million millennials and some can be viewed as just becoming adults, to full-fledged adults with children," said Boneparth, who is closer to 40 than 20 and a homeowner with children.
It is an even bigger mistake, he says, when people assume that all millennials believe the stock market will only go up.
"It is a pretty big range and does mean some have been through different market cycles," Boneparth said. "I'm old enough to know what a bad market looks like, in 2008-2009. For older millennials, the feelings and thoughts are alive and well. They shaped the older end of the millennial generation," he said.
Though for millennials and Gen Z investors in their 20s who were just becoming teenagers during the Great Recession, recent performance could lend itself to overconfidence in the stock market. "And that could shape how they are investing their money," Boneparth said. "I don't think that stigma of 08-09 will ever escape my mind at 37. But you almost certainly get a 'stocks are stonks' often out of Gen Z, who are all about everything in a good way."
Long-term returns and low returns
Market experts are worried that the extraordinary returns stocks have produced in recent years cannot be sustained. A recent survey of 400 investment professionals conducted by CNBC finds more than half (55%) expecting the S&P to return less than 10% next year. And more think the index will either be flat or down than up by more than 10%.
Most millionaires taking the CNBC Millionaire Survey believe their assets will be the same at year-end 2022 and they anticipate a rate of return between 4%-5% in 2022 — though since many are retired, they have a much more conservative asset allocation. Millennials believe their rate of return will be higher, with 39% predicting 10%-plus in 2022, and another 32% expecting at least 6% to 10% from their investments.
Every year, the major fund companies, such as Vanguard Group, release their investment return assumptions, and in recent years, the predictions for a lower return world haven't been proven correct. For the record, Vanguard's 2022 outlook says U.S. stocks are more overvalued than any time since the dotcom bubble, but there is no clear correlation in the historical data saying that inflation and rising rates will necessarily cause an abrupt end to the valuation momentum. "Our outlook calls not for a lost decade for U.S. stocks, as some fear, but for a lower-return one," Vanguard concluded.
"It's always best to be as accurate as you can, but since being accurate is hardest thing to do, the next best thing is to overdeliver," said Mitch Goldberg, president of investment advisory firm ClientFirst Strategy. "In next 10 years, we expect a positive return of anywhere from 5%-8% annualized. I'm comfortable saying that, but I'm not comfortable saying next year only expect 5%."
There is an important distinction in how investors think about the rate of return. A diversified portfolio is not a 100% stock portfolio. When firms assume a 4% to 6% annual rate of return, that is assuming a mix of stocks and bonds, even if stocks are the majority. The S&P 500 has averaged an annual return of 9% since World War II, according to CFRA.
Boneparth says regardless of how well the stock market has been doing, issuing conservative return assumptions for clients is the proper communication to make annually. When he does forward-looking returns, he pegs a 5.3% return on a risk-adjusted basis for an 80-20 equity-bond portfolio. "When the market keeps pumping out returns, you have to go back to the 60 to 80 years history," he said. History is only "wrong" right now, he said, because of the microenvironment of the past 10 years, from recession to expansion and Covid and through it all, multiple phases of monetary stimulus.
"Professionally speaking, you want to temper expectations about what returns can look like," he said. "Every year S&P predictions are wrong, so millennials may be thinking 'their guess is as good as mine, but when I am doing planning, I am being conservative in assumptions on rates of return in market portfolios," Boneparth said. "Because I am trying to build a margin of safety, so if you are up 10%, you are way ahead of the curve."
Younger investors have more time than any other generation to accumulate wealth, and tied to that, more reason than any other generation to remain aggressive in their portfolio allocations. This doesn't mean their short-term optimism will be proven right, but staying in the market with a significant allocation to equities over the long-term is the right decision, as long as short-term success in the market does not breed hubris.
How to become a great investor
"Ask any fabulously successful entrepreneur how long it took them to become a competent investor and they will say five years; incredibly, it takes five years before you get your sea legs," said Michael Sonnenfeldt, founder and chairman of Tiger 21, an investing network for the wealthy. He learned the hard way that early success in stock market investing does not ensure continued success. "The worst thing that ever happened to me in college was I bought options as my first investment and they doubled or tripled. That was the most expensive financial lesson I ever had because it completely inflated my confidence," he said. "I had to lose many times what I made to understand those bets I made were luck and nothing more than luck."
Yet the current world is one in which investors have been forced, by economic and market conditions, to learn that equities are the way to generate market wealth. A generation ago, when there were much higher interest rates, debt investments could do a better job of helping a balanced portfolio beat inflation.
"In the low interest rate environment, a subset of people are learning how to drive returns through equity, whether private or direct or public," Sonnenfeldt said. Even with rates set to rise in 2022, they will remain at what are very low levels compared to history. "They really have to work those assets and that may be part of what's going on, people learning how to work their assets to beat inflation will have a very different view than we had a generation ago," he added.
One finding that is consistent across members of the Tiger 21 affluent investing network is less reliance on the stock market for returns. In the past few years, venture capital has become much more prevalent among members and, in general, stocks do not make up the majority of an investor's portfolio. Even as younger investors have high hopes for the S&P 500 next year, and generate a significant portion of their wealth from cryptocurrency, the CNBC Millionaire Survey did find their portfolios to be much more diversified than older investor peers — who tend to stick more to a traditional equities, fixed income and cash mix — millennial allocations to international, alternative assets and private markets are similar to public stock market weightings.
"My returns won't mirror public market returns, and if I didn't know any better I would say, geez, I should be unhappy," Sonnenfeldt said. "But if I am north of 10% and still dramatically less than the public markets, it could be an incredible year, knowing no matter what happens in the market I may duplicate those returns again."
Whether the S&P 500 repeats its nearly 30% gain of 2021, or reverts to its long-term annualized average of 9% in 2022 — or takes it on the chin — being realistic about the long-term, and having a plan for it, is more important than being remembered as the one who got next year's S&P 500 call right.
Preserving wealth, while covering living expenses and taxes, is the No. 1 goal, and that requires a realistic understanding of what can be earned from investments year in and year out. And over a longer period of time, with more time in the market, the best young investors will learn to adjust expenses to that realism.
"Optimism and realism are not the same thing, and many people are optimistic but not every realistic," Sonnenfeldt said.