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Is the Bull Market Coming to an End? What Retirement Savers Should Do to Prepare

Image shows a pull figurine signifying a bull market. T. Rowe Price says investors should expect lower returns in the midterm.

In 2022 the S&P 500 had its worst annual first-half in five decades. With the tailwinds that buoyed global economies during the pandemic recovery gone, those who are saving for retirement should take several steps to weather the drop-off in stock and bond returns, including adding more growth-oriented assets to their portfolios, according to T. Rowe Price’s 2022 U.S. Retirement Market Outlook.

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Why Investors Can Expect Lower Returns

Image shows a woman looking out a window. T. Rowe Price says investors should expect returns in the coming period to be lower than recent years.

Despite the economic turmoil wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the stock market surged in 2021 to new heights since a mass sell-off in March 2020. The S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq Composite climbed to all-time highs amid vaccine distributions and increased economic activity.

The stock market’s recent run comes on the heels of the longest bull market in history, which spanned 2009 to 2020. Since 2009, the S&P 500 has only posted one losing year for total returns (2018). In fact, the index has posted total annual returns of more than 15% in seven of those 12 years. The index, which tracks the performance of 500 large public companies, was up more than 25% in 2021.

But the T. Rowe Price report, which was issued in the fall of 2021, warned of less robust returns.

“We believe midterm returns will be lower than those seen in previous periods – in some cases considerably lower. This has significant ramifications for retirement plans and whom they benefit,” the firm stated in its report.

The financial services firm first pointed to fixed-income markets and the near-historic low interest rates – now being raised by the Federal Reserve. That’s a trend the firm expected to continue. As for the equity markets, “We expect returns in many large markets such as the U.S. to be restrained relative to recent history,” it added. “While valuations across asset classes vary, and some assets are attractively valued, the valuations of most assets are elevated on these measures.”

Lastly, T. Rowe Price pointed to several risks that markets face, including inflation – which was at a 40-year high in June 2022. While fiscal stimulus, earnings growth and economic activity have all helped propel the pandemic recovery, inflationary fears were evident in late 2021. In October 2021, for example, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers rose 6.2% compared to 12 months earlier, the largest increase since 1990.

The risks extend beyond U.S. markets. The T. Rowe Price report noted that China is facing supply chain disruptions and rising commodities prices. Elsewhere, virus mutations and vaccine rollout challenges may also hamper investment returns.

“While the global economy has been buoyed by a period of extreme liquidity driven by fiscal and monetary stimulus, these tailwinds are likely to fade as central banks begin to pursue more moderate policies,” the report stated. “Although these conditions may not materialize as significant headwinds for growth, we believe they contribute to a less compelling risk/reward profile going forward. Retirement investors will need to be positioned accordingly.”

How Retirement Savers Can Respond

Image shows a couple looking over their retirement investments. T. Rowe Price says investors should expect returns in the coming period that will be lower than recent years.

Investors who are saving for retirement have three options for meeting the challenge of lower-than-expected future returns:

Save more or delay retirement: T. Rowe Price acknowledges this may be the “least attractive” option, however saving more or simply delaying retirement can help offset lower returns. By delaying retirement, a person can reduce the number of years for which they’ll need retirement income. Postponing retirement and working longer can also enable a person to claim Social Security later. Delaying Social Security beyond full retirement age will result in a larger benefit.

Acquire more growth-seeking assets: The second option may mean increasing a portfolio’s equity composition or introducing fixed-income securities that offer higher returns. This can lead to more risk, but a target date fund with a growth-oriented glide path may be a good option for doing so, especially for investors whose retirements are still years away, T. Rowe Price said.

Limit spending in retirement: The third and final option is to limit spending in retirement. “T. Rowe Price analysis of retirees’ spending habits reveals that retirees tend to adjust their spending to their income,” the report states. “Most of the retirees who do adjust their spending have the means and flexibility to do so. The poorest households, however, cannot spend less.”

Bottom Line

As the U.S. and other nations continue to wade through high inflation and a slowing economy, T. Rowe Price warns that investors should expect lower returns. To limit the impact of lower investment returns, those planning for retirement can simply save more or delay retirement. They can also add more growth-seeking assets to their portfolios, or adjust their spending habits in retirement.

Retirement Planning Tips

  • Do you know how much you’ll need to have saved for retirement? SmartAsset’s Retirement Calculator can help you estimate how large of a nest egg you’ll need to fund your retirement lifestyle.
  • A financial advisor can help you invest your retirement savings and create a tax-efficient plan for withdrawing the money. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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