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Generation Y getting hard finance lessons early

In college, Matthew Bergh was ahead of the curve, working at a local Starbucks and setting aside a few thousand dollars a year to do what his parents taught him to do — invest.
/ Source: Reuters

In college, Matthew Bergh was ahead of the curve, working part-time at a local Starbucks and setting aside a few thousand dollars a year to do what his parents taught him to do — invest.

In 2008 the markets crashed and the recession interrupted his financial dreams. "As of right now, I can't invest," Bergh said. "I'm saving."

Eighteen- to 30-year olds, known as "Generation Y," have taken a more conservative approach to managing their money — stashing it in a savings account or under the proverbial mattress.

This generation of investors came of age during a succession of economic earthquakes. They witnessed the dot-com implosion of 2000 and the more recent onslaught of plunging housing prices, the credit crisis, recession, double-digit unemployment and an annihilation of investor wealth.

"The younger generation has not seen a good stock market over their adulthood," said Gordon Fowler, chief executive of Glenmede, a Philadelphia-based wealth manager for rich people. "That had to have some impact on the psychology of younger investors."

Bergh, 22, started looking for a job in January, and sent out more than 200 applications. After graduating in May, he did what thousands of young Americans have been forced to do: he moved back in with his parents and took an internship with Microsoft Corp. His job search continues.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Among his other ways to conserve cash, he has postponed his investments.

Leslie Barrie, a 26-year-old journalist in New York, followed a similar path. After graduating from college in California, she moved in with her parents and pursued low-paying internships before she went to graduate school.

"I try to save as much as possible," Barrie said. She wants to invest for her retirement, but the markets have discouraged her from doing anything other than keeping a savings account.

Even those who work in capital markets are leery.

One 28-year-old man who declined to be named because he is a hedge fund vice president said five years ago he kept about 10 percent of his finances in cash. Now, he keeps 70 percent.

Generation Y's views on money echo that of another generation — their grandparents. Many of those people learned the value of saving and frugality because they grew up in the wake of the 1929 market crash and the Great Depression.

By contrast, their parents — the Baby Boomers — were buoyed by several major bull markets, soaring home values and the proliferation of easy consumer credit.

"Our parents lived it up on debt and then many of them saw their houses get foreclosed, and that was kind of a shock to us," said Robert Eubank, a 20-year-old senior finance major and equity portfolio manager at a student-run investment group at Towson University in Maryland.

"It put that notion of being prepared for a downturn in their heads."

The impact did not spare those with large financial cushions.

A recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey found that 52 percent of young, affluent investors seek lower risks when choosing investment strategies, far outpacing all age groups but one. Among those aged 65 and older, 55 percent tolerance with investments. The scars from the financial crisis may not heal, either.

Younger investors not only are highly vulnerable to market shocks, but "depression babies" carry the memory of volatile times throughout their lives, said Ulrike Malmandier, a professor of finance at the University of California, Berkeley, who analyzed consumer finance surveys from 1960 to 2007.

The post-crisis generation commonly shied away from higher-risk investments, such as stocks.

"Even 20 years after the financial crisis, the effect will be significant," Malmandier said.

The job market is adding to young people's problems.

The largest age group at more than 92 million Americans is heavily dependent on their parents' money — and underemployed. A recent Pew Research study found that a third get financial support from families and only four in 10 work full-time jobs.

As a result, the only investing for many younger adults involves retirement saving plans, such as 401(k)s, often automatically created by employers.

Even with those, Generation Y is the least likely of all age groups to invest in stocks or bond funds, according to a Vanguard Group Inc study of its retirement investors.

"There is a very important message that's not getting through," said Christine Fahlund, retirement planning expert at mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price.

"The biggest challenge is how do we get people to stop being affected by complete paralysis and despondency."

The good news for wealth managers is that Generation Y is ready to listen.

"They do actually want to learn; they just don't know how to start the process," said Todd Romer, founder of financial education initiative Young Money.

Romer visited 25 college campuses this fall, encouraging students to invest. PNC Bank, General Motors and others sponsored the tour, according to website.

Bergh, who is finishing an internship in his home town of Fargo, North Dakota, wants to get back to his E*Trade brokerage account and resume investing. For now, however, his optimism is muted.

"I've been trying to figure out, where do I have to cut down on my quality of life, and thinking, is it my fault or part of the macro environment?"

His answer? It isn't really his fault.