SOUTH DENNIS — Menacing rumbles from Wall Street echoed across the placid waters of Cape Cod Bay last week as a boatload of graying day trippers returned to Sesuit Harbor.
It was meant to be a carefree outing: A Hyannis financial planning firm had chartered the S.S. Lobster Roll, a twin-diesel party boat, to fete about 50 clients. But even amid the seaborne laughter, passengers were rattled by the recent market turbulence. Like millions in or approaching retirement, they wondered how the mounting uncertainty might affect their financial future.
“I’m nervous,” said Mashpee lawyer Seth Stoffregen, 69, leaning forward in a cabin booth. “What am I going to do? Put my money in a mattress? I’ve weathered these things before, but now I’m getting ready to retire. And I’m not looking forward to working at Walmart.”
His companion, 69-year-old Cotuit realtor Deborah Schilling, shared the unsettled mood of many on the cruise. She said she hopes to downshift, working less and traveling more in the coming years. But she worries about how her assets will survive an economic downturn.
“Baby boomers want to play and be active till we’re 85 or 90,” she said.
Many have squirreled away money but aren’t sure how long it will last. While individuals are taking different approaches to the market swings, and financial planners vary in their advice for navigating the current environment, most share a fear of outliving their savings.
A recent report from the Boston financial giant Fidelity Investments showed nearly 200,000 investors had amassed at least $1 million in 401(k) retirement accounts managed by the firm. But the average balance in those accounts was only $106,000.
Most retirees, of course, also draw Social Security, while many have homes and other assets, and some collect pensions. But that relatively modest average-balance figure may help explain the common anxiety.
With many now living for decades after they retire, they’ll continue to tap investment income — and hope it will bankroll years of golfing, globe-trotting, and pampering grandchildren.
“We’ve been working our whole lives,” Stoffregen said. “Now we want to enjoy it.”
Closer to Boston, older employees and retirees are making similar calculations.
Chris Murphy, 60, who plans to retire next year from the Newton school system, where he trains teachers in classroom management software, said he has become wary and has dialed back on the stock portion of his portfolio, at least for now. Murphy said he’ll rely partly on his savings and partly on income from his investment properties and a side business in retirement.
“I’m watching [financial network] CNBC all the time, and people are all over the place about where the market’s going,” he said. “I think it will tank, but it will bounce back.”
Quincy resident Julia Medeiros, 61, whose marketing job was eliminated in a corporate restructuring last spring, has moved some funds from her retirement account into safer money market accounts because of the uncertainties. Yet she recognizes that she has to keep a chunk in stock investments to generate the returns that could support her in retirement.
“My time horizon is shrinking, so I have to be in [stocks] if I want my savings to last,” she said. “But there’s risk. If the market drops, I’d just close my eyes and try not to freak out.”
Last Tuesday, the day of the Cape Cod cruise, was another roller-coaster market session marked by triple-digit swings and lost momentum. The much-watched Dow Jones industrial average opened up more than 150 points. But by midday, the morning stock rally had fizzled and the benchmark index had plummeted, ultimately closing down more than 120 points.
The stomach-churning volatility continued throughout the week, sometimes in response to trade pronouncements or tweets from President Trump. Markets rebounded sharply on Wednesday and Thursday before a mixed close on Friday to end a losing August. The Dow fell another 285 points on Tuesday.
Since topping out at 27,359.16 on July 15, the Dow has dropped 4.5 percent in a late summer season that’s typically tranquil. Some analysts see the beginning of a market pullback of at least 10 percent. That could foreshadow a recession, when the US economy shrinks in back-to-back quarters.
Investors who once assumed they could tolerate risk are being put to the test amid an alarming spate of warning signs: battered stock prices, plunging yields in long-term bonds, worsening US-China trade tensions, slowing economies in Europe and Asia, and political instability.
Financial planner Chris Boyd, founder of Asset Management Resources, which hosted the cruise, tries to help clients set smart “asset allocations” — mixes of stocks, bonds, and cash in their investment accounts — tailored to their particular needs. But he conceded it’s easier to stick with a plan when markets rise month over month than when they turn choppy.
After more than a decade of steady growth, “we’re late in an economic cycle,” Boyd said. “There’s going to be some volatility, which is uncomfortable.”
To cope, he said, some clients may choose to lighten up on aggressive “growth” stocks while shifting to shares of lower-priced “value” companies. “We advise them to be more defensive without radically changing their asset allocation,” Boyd said.
Many on the 58-foot party boat vowed to stay the course. Having bought and held stocks through past crashes and recoveries, they were taking the market gyrations in stride.
“The market is what the market is,” said engineer Jerry Prukala, 79, of Hyannis, who still works as an electronics warfare contractor for the Navy. “I may be a little aggressive with my investments, but I’m positive. We have the greatest country in the world. You’re going to have ups and downs. But if you take any 20-year period in the stock market, it’s always up.”
Prukala said he supports the Trump administration’s hard line with China, which he believes poses an economic and military threat, even if it causes short-term pain. “Personally, if I have to pay a little more for something made in the United States, I’ll pay it,” he said.
Mashpee retiree Bob Graham, also 79, who worked at Raytheon and a family business that sold communications equipment, also has a bullish outlook. “When the market goes down, it’s a great buying opportunity,” he said. “When it goes up, it’s a great selling opportunity. As soon as this [Chinese] tariff situation clears up, it’s going to go up like a rocket ship.”
His golfing buddy Charles Lodi, a 76-year-old Falmouth retiree who worked with Graham at Raytheon’s missile systems division in Andover, said he disagrees with his longtime friend on politics — Graham’s a Trump fan, Lodi isn’t — but shares a patient market approach. Still, he acknowledged fighting off some jitters as he follows the economic news.
“I’m in it for the long term,” Lodi said. “But this is the first time I’ve been concerned. I’m afraid the current occupant in the White House could send us into a recession. . . . I’m not worried about myself surviving day to day. But I’d like to leave something for my kids.”
Another cruise-goer, retired special education administrator Marie Stevenson, 77, of Mashpee, said she believes people’s market perspectives reflect their outlook on life.
As she disembarked from the S.S. Lobster Roll, making her way down a boat ramp to a couple of picnic tables at the marina, Stevenson described herself as “not a worrier.” She only peeks at her investment account occasionally and ignores the daily market reports.
“When the market dropped and a lot of my friends sold their stock, I said nope,” she recalled. “What goes down will come back up, so let it be.”