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The rising tide of restiveness

Investors increasingly are tuned in to their portfolios at all times. And it isn't just the young ones who are wired, and watching.

Whenever it is humanly possible, Hank Citron, a retired history professor, checks his stocks.

During trading hours in the "war room," as he calls his second-floor study in suburban Englewood, N.J., where his computer is always online to Morgan Stanley and his television is always tuned to CNBC, he checks his stocks every 10 minutes.

When stock-checking conditions are more challenging, Citron, 63, improvises. At his dentist's office recently, he spied a secretary heading to lunch and jumped behind her desk. Commandeering her Web browser, he punched in his password and found out precisely how much his portfolio was worth.

Citron's finest moment in obsessive stock monitoring came in March when he and his wife, Rebecca, were on vacation in Israel. Using the Internet, he had prepared for the trip by locating every cybercafe in every town along the route he planned to travel.

When his shares in biotech Oxigene surged, Citron was ready. He popped into Billy's cybercafe in Netanya and pulled the trigger. He sold all 500 of his shares for a 107 percent profit on a $6,000 investment. The stock plunged a few weeks later.

As Bob Dylan might sing it if he were addicted to CNBC and checked his stocks every 10 minutes, the golden years they are a-changin'.

Citron is part of what investment managers and online analysts say is a growing compulsion by many older investors to follow the daily, even minute-to-minute, fluctuations of the stock market.

With plenty of time to worry about how their money is doing, and with less time in their lives to recover from major investment mistakes, older investors are becoming increasingly agitated as market volatility insinuates itself into their daily lives, several experts say.

Even though most investors 55 and older remain significantly more averse to risk than younger investors, analysts say many older investors are tantalized to the point of torment by endless information about the possibility of outsize profits.

"Older people are possessed by this market," said Gary Schatsky, a financial adviser and lawyer in New York who is chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers.

Echoing a number of financial advisers who deal with jittery older investors, Schatsky attributed the rising tide of restiveness to huge high-tech gains in the last two years, the market's sharp decline this spring, ubiquitous stock coverage on television and shameless crowing among retirees about their clever stock picks.

"One of the biggest topics among retired people in recent years is how well you did in the market," Schatsky said. "The peer pressure is extraordinary. When they have friends they have known for 30 years who are making money like it is going out of style, they figure, "I can do this, too.'


Chatter among retirees about whopping profits disturbs no one more than Citron's wife, Rebecca.

"When every little old lady is passing out stock tips is when I get nervous," said Citron, a retired Union Carbide executive.

On a foray into her husband's "war room" as he pedaled a stationary bike, watched CNBC and chatted happily to a broker about an initial public offering, Rebecca Citron was at pains to point out that she makes sure about three-quarters of her and her husband's retirement money "is being professionally managed."

"What upsets me is that I feel you have to know something about the company you buy," Rebecca Citron said. "But that is not the culture of the market these days. The culture of this market is like the culture of Las Vegas."

Her husband readily acknowledges that he does not understand much about the high-tech companies that dominate his portfolio.

"I have a very thin veneer of knowledge," said Citron, who has a doctorate in history from New York University and retired last year after 31 years of teaching history at the County College of Morris in Morris County, N.J. "The last chip I understood was a poker chip."

The Citrons, who travel often, are planning another trip. Citron booked it on the Internet. They plan to take a cruise off the coast of Greenland and Iceland.

"You can't check your stocks when we are up there," Rebecca Citron told her husband when he mentioned the cruise.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"You can't," she said. "There are no phone lines."

"This is a shocker," her husband groaned.

Investors 55 and older spend about the same amount of time online (about 10 hours a week) as younger people, according to Forrester Research, an online consumer research company in Cambridge, Mass.

"In the past, you weren't able to see what your money was doing all day long," Forrester analyst Kenneth Clemmer said. "Now that you've got the Web, you can watch your net worth fluctuate in real time. Maybe this causes folks to get more edgy."

Edgy elders, though, are not rushing to trade online. Citron, who says he trades five times a week when the market is rising, is a bit of a pioneer for his age. As of January, just 15 percent of online traders were 55 or older, according to a Forrester survey.

Most older investors, despite being agitated by wall-to-wall news coverage of the market, remain tentative when it comes to trading. They are more diversified in their stock holdings and more likely to hold cash than younger investors, according to an investor profile study conducted last year by Charles Schwab & Co.

"It is not so much the trading that is causing the nervousness, it's the information," Clemmer said. "Older investors use the Internet to study their investments and to fret."

Karen Altfest, a financial planner in New York City, was flooded last year by calls from fretful older investors. Until the phone started ringing, she had been convinced the Internet would never be a factor in the financial lives of her older clients.

"I was really wrong about this," Altfest said.

Bonnie Bauman, a 56-year-old artist, turns on CNBC when the markets open and watches it until well after the trading day ends.

While monitoring the television, she pores through the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. On her bedside table, where she used to keep Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, there is a stack of financial magazines.

Bauman's stock market mania is something she had never thought possible.

"I was not interested in money," said Bauman, who lives in Long Island, N.Y. "When I sold a painting, I used to give the money to my mother. She would put it into something, a mutual fund, I guess, and when I needed my money, she would give it back."

Then, in February, after her boyfriend came into a sizable inheritance, they began plotting how to get in on the phenomenal returns they had been hearing about in high technology.

"Everyone said don't overweight in tech," she recalled. "But we were pretty stubborn. We put it all in tech."

They invested nearly all their money in technology-heavy mutual funds in March and watched in April while those funds, as Bauman put it, "got totally hammered."

"We are in the minus column now," she said, laughing. "I guess I am laughing because of my artistic nature."

Despite the losses, which she expects to be temporary, Bauman insists she enjoys playing the stock market as much as she enjoys painting, if not more.

"For me, it is like a living work of art," she said. "It has all the forces of nature: expansion, contraction, rising, falling, conflict and concordance. It's just so alive."

Sam Altfest, 89, is a buy-and-hold kind of guy. That does not mean he does not worry.

To inform his worry, he sits in a leather recliner and watches CNBC for about seven hours a day.

"He has given everything else up," said his wife, Ruth. "That's all he does."

Before he retired, Altfest, whose daughter-in-law is the financial consultant, ran a wholesale meat company in New York City.

"You see, when I was working, I didn't watch the stock market," he said.

He retired 22 years ago and moved to Plantation, where he played golf nearly every day.

"You see, when I was playing golf, I didn't have time for the stock market," he said.