Downturn hits the U.S. elite

2008

For most Americans now struggling to make ends meet, the fact that their country's millionaires are also becoming more concerned by the economic downturn will be unlikely to elicit much sympathy.

But the fact that America's financial elite is feeling the squeeze as much as everyone is a cause for concern, and shows just how deeply worries about the economy now run.

A study of nearly 2,000 high net worth individuals (or those with assets of more than $1m not including their primary residence) by life insurance firm Phoenix has found growing levels of pessimism and even anxiety about their current and future financial health.

The survey reported a significant drop in how people perceived their financial situation, with just over half – 54 per cent – feeling wealthier in 2008, a significant decline from the 81 per cent reported in 2007.

Just a quarter said they were "very optimistic" about their financial future, a nine percentage point drop from last year, it added.

Nearly six out of 10 also felt the U.S economy was now in a downturn and that the worst was yet to come.

Surprisingly, given that these are people you would expect to have the most disposable income, most also appeared to be scaling back their expectations for retirement.

When asked to describe how much of their income would constitute a "comfortable standard of living in retirement," a total of 62 per cent say less than 100 per cent of their current income, up 10 percentage points from 2007.

Four out of 10 of the high-net-worth individuals polled were also worried their assets would be depleted too quickly or that they would no longer be able to live comfortably on their retirement income, up from 36 per cent reported last year.

Inflation fears, as well as investment performance worries, were stoking those concerns, Phoenix found.

Half were worried that inflation would erode the value of their income (up significantly from slightly more than four out of 10 in 2007), and 39 per cent feared diminished assets because of poor investment performance, up six percentage points.

"What a difference a year makes," said Walter H. Zultowski, senior vice-president, research and concept development at Phoenix.

"The mood has shifted from optimism to concern, and even the wealthiest Americans are worried about losing ground, particularly when it comes to retirement," he added.

"Not surprisingly, unforeseen healthcare expenses, including long-term care costs, are also a major concern for high-net-worth consumers," he continued.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey found that many millionaires were financial lone rangers, with half saying they rarely sought professional advice when it came to making major financial decisions and four out of 10 not even having a primary financial advisor.

Intriguingly, given the sub-prime-led collapse in the U.S property market, most of the individuals polled said they still had confidence in real estate as an investment.

Nearly half saw it as a safer investment than the stock market and 45 per cent saw it as a better investment than the stock market.

The Phoenix survey has come at the same time as a poll by consultancy Watson Wyatt has suggested that older workers without other health care insurance options are more likely to defer retirement to stay covered under their employer's plan.

Employees who relied on their employers for health care coverage and did not expect to receive employer-provided health benefits in retirement were 16.5 percentage points less likely to retire in any given year than workers with access to health care coverage through another source, it concluded.

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