Study: Woman Have Good Reasons For More Conservative Investments

May 27, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Women tend to be more conservative investors. That’s a fact that has caused family finance analysts to fret over women’s investment portfolios and wonder if they’ll have enough money built up at retirement.

However, an Ohio State University study indicates that there are usually very good reasons for women’s conservative behavior.

“Before we did this research, there was this wholesale feeling that women need to be more aggressive in their investment strategies,” said Jonathan Fox, assistant professor of consumer and textile sciences in the College of Human Ecology at Ohio State University.

“There was a fear that there were all these women in their 20s and 30s putting their retirement money in fixed accounts” instead of the stock market, where real growth can take place.

But sometimes, it makes sense to be less aggressive in investment decisions, said Lori Embrey, a graduate student who spearheaded the project. Embrey is also a financial adviser with a Columbus-area investment service.

“Being conservative is OK for some people -- if they are older and looking at retirement, or if they have short-term goals, like saving for a house,” Embrey said.

Embrey first became interested in gender differences because she theorized that many women are conservative investors only to balance their husband’s more risky investment strategies -- not because they were naturally more timid or other such gender-based reason.

To really be able to study gender differences without worrying about the kind of balancing act that many married couples use in their financial decision-making, Fox and Embrey decided to study investments of one-person households. They gathered data from the 1995 Survey of Consumer Finances and found 839 households that fit their criteria.

On the surface, they found what every investment counselor could have told them they’d find -- women in their sample were much more conservative investors then the men, preferring to invest their money in lower-interest-bearing Certificates of Deposit instead of the riskier but higher-rate-of-return stocks or mutual funds. Also, nearly 60 percent of the men in the sample indicated they were willing to take average or above-average risks with their money, while only 36 percent of the women described themselves as such.

But when they took another look at the data, they found reasonable explanations for those behaviors -- explanations that have nothing to do with gender. “You can explain almost all the difference by looking at their age and their net worth, and whether or not they were expecting an inheritance,” Embrey said.

The women in the sample averaged 59.9 years of age, compared with men’s average age of 46. Younger people can afford to be riskier with their money, because even if the stock market takes an unusually long or deep slide, it rebounds over a few years. The closer a person is to retirement age, the less flexible they can be to ride out a downward trend in the market.

“If these were all younger women, and these investments were their 401K plans for retirement, yes the findings would be a concern,” Fox said. “But that’s not the case.”

Also, the women in the sample had a much lower net worth than the men -- $119,000 on average to men’s $188,000 average. “There’s a paradox there,” Fox said. “If you’re poor in income, the only way to increase your net worth is to invest aggressively, but you really can’t take the risk. Everything freezes up.”

Both men and women tended to put more money in stocks as their net worth increased, the researchers found. Women were just less likely to reach a high enough net worth to allow them that luxury.

On average, women in the sample had only $7,500 of their portfolio in stocks, while men had an average of $25,000 in stocks. Both were similar in their lower-risk, lower-interest CD holdings, with women averaging $6,300 and men averaging $5,600.

Women in the sample also tended to be less educated than the men, affecting their potential future earnings and again discouraging them from riskier investments. Also, women who were expecting an inheritance tended to put more money in stocks, possibly because they feel they have something of a “safety net” just in case the stock market takes a dive.

This study’s findings open up a whole new area for potential research, Fox said. In particular, future studies could look at just younger men and women to see if any differences show up within those groups that can’t be explained by income, net worth, education or other factors.

“We found some pretty good explanations for differences in investment strategies,” Fox said. “Overall, the process that men and women use to make investment decisions isn’t that different, and it isn’t gender-driven.”

The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Financial Counseling and Planning.

Ohio State University

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