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Over 50? Here's Why You May Still Be Leery of Stocks

Stocks in this article: SPY

NEW YORK ( -- A recent survey by BlackRock observes that only 18% of respondents' investable assets are currently deployed in stocks. For those investors, cash, at 48% of financial assets, remains the largest holding.

That many individual investors remain "underexposed" to equities is sometimes cited as a heartening sign. The bull market, notwithstanding its nearly five-year-long duration, doesn't appear to have "bubble-like" dimensions, based on certain measures of investor participation.

Some of this "equity-light" allocation behavior reflects the preferences of older investors, who own a disproportionate share of U.S. stock market wealth. In fact, those born before 1965 account for 32% of the population, but represent 68% of all stock and bond investors.

So why does the 50-plus crowd remain skittish about owning stocks, five years after the 2008 financial crisis, and in the immediate wake of a cheer-worthy 28% year-to-date gain in the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY)? Are the fears of older investors more readily aroused by memories of the financial crisis and bear market?

The most obvious explanation for the risk aversion of older individuals is that they're closer to retirement age, and therefore reluctant to retain a high exposure to equities. Should another market meltdown occur, those in, or approaching, retirement would have less time to recover their losses.

However, there may be another factor at play. For older investors, memories of the 2008 financial crisis may loom larger, partly because they "feel" like they occurred relatively recently, compared to the perceptions of younger adults.

There are reasons for this disparity in time perception. Apparently, perceived time moves faster as individuals grow older. For someone over age fifty, the events of four or five years ago "feel" more recent than might be the case for someone in their 20s.

This phenomenon is known as "time compression." According to a recent academic paper, "a person's perceived duration of an interval understates its true duration, so for example, one calendar year may seem to pass in just a few months. A commonly expressed feature of time compression is that it tends to worsen with age; life speeds up as you get older."

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