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The Road to Ruin?

Charlotte retirees hold on to optimism

Amy Scott Apr 14, 2009
The Road to Ruin?

Charlotte retirees hold on to optimism

Amy Scott Apr 14, 2009


AMY SCOTT: It’s a little before 10 a.m., and a group of mostly retired and semi-retired folks files into a Panera Bread.

This is an almost daily ritual. They meet here after church, drinking coffee from personalized mugs, and talking politics and investments. A framed photo and news clipping about the group hangs above their regular table. When I last met up with them six months ago, the stock market had begun its steady dive. Back then retired labor mediator Bob Brown was feeling lucky he’d sold out just after the Dow hit its peak above 14,000. That was in the fall of 2007.

BOB BROWN: I guess the Holy Spirit told me to take my money out of the stocks and put it in CDs and stuff. And thank God I didn’t put it into an AIG or something.

Boy, was he right about that. Since we last talked, analysts say more than a trillion dollars in retirement savings has evaporated. Now, with stocks recovering a bit in the last month, Brown is thinking about tiptoeing back into the market.

Don Brown sits a few seats down. He’s a business owner and not related to Bob. He’s kept playing in the market throughout the downturn. Making bets like this one:

DON BROWN: Three dollars and 50 cents for Bank of America. It’s up to $9 now. That was a pretty good risk.

Jane Francisco is done taking risks. She’s a retired teacher, living on social security and her pension. She says she was losing sleep watching more than $20,000 vanish from her retirement savings. That was about 20 percent.
So a few months ago Francisco and her husband pulled out what was left and put it in a bank.

JANE FRANCISCO: I need to hold onto what I worked so hard for. It was a great sting to me to realize that, and I guess realizing that I’ve never had money, but for the first time I did, and how quickly it can just slip through your fingers.

Francisco says she even considered keeping her money in a safe at home. At the other end of the table, Rhea Caldwell lost money in the market as well. She teaches math at a private school.

Rhea CALDWELL: I’ll probably have to work till I’m 80 now to make up for all the money that we lost in the pension fund. But uh, it’s coming back.

BROWN: It’s not lost. It’s just . . . we’re waiting for it to come back.

Rhea’s husband Bob reminds her that they won’t actually lose the money until they sell. And they haven’t sold yet. Caldwell owns a business building shipping containers. He says the downturn has helped his business some. His biggest customers are tire companies.

CALDWELL: Most people are keeping their cars. They’re fixing old ones, and they have to put new tires on it. So the tire companies are making tires as fast as they can. So I’m seeing a very steady first quarter.

In Charlotte overall, the job market is far from steady. The unemployment rate has reached close to 12 percent. When I was here last one of the group had just been laid off from her insurance job. She’s now back at work part time. Maybe it’s the wisdom of their years or their Christian faith. But this is a pretty optimistic bunch. Again, Jane Francisco.

FRANCISCO: This is the security of having friends and support and just knowing that you know these people are here for you is so comforting.

They’ll continue to ride out the recession together every morning over coffee.

In Charlotte, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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