Inside Wealth

Wealthy investors spooked by debt crisis

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While stock markets rode out the debt crisis with surprising confidence, wealthy investors weren't so calm.

Two new surveys find that the debt cliffhanger in Washington earlier this month left top investors badly shaken. And it's unclear when their confidence will return, especially given the next budget battle is looming in the first quarter.

The Spectrem Millionaire Investor Confidence Index posted its largest one-month drop since the depths of the financial crisis in April 2009. The fall came after the index, which measures the outlook for those with at least $1 million in investable assets, had reached a 9½-year high in September.

"This is a vivid reminder that what happens in Washington, D.C., does not stay in D.C.," said George Walper, president of Spectrem Group, the wealth research firm.

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Another survey, PNC Wealth Management's Wealth and Values Survey, found that nearly half of investors with more than $500,000 in investable assets said they were less optimistic about the U.S. economy than before the stalemate.

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Fully 62 percent said the crisis will negatively impact the economy "in both the short and longer terms." Nearly half (47 percent) said they will be more cautious with their investing as a result.

Their caution marks a stark change for a group that until recently had the brightest outlook for the economy.

"The increasingly optimistic mood of America's affluent on the economy darkened in the aftermath of the U.S. government shutdown and near default," PNC said.

All that pessimism about the country, however, hasn't infected their rosy outlook for their own personal economy. Study after study finds that the wealthy believe the national economy is headed for ruin, but they're going to be fine.

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More than two thirds say their net worth has increased by 20 percent or more since the financial crisis. Their optimism about their own portfolios is at a five-year high, and they are especially bullish about their holdings of stocks and real estate. Fully 39 percent plan to add to their stock exposure, according to the PNC report.

So will the pessimism of wealthy investors drag down stocks? Not likely. And the market surge in recent weeks suggests that all that pessimism may have passed. At least, until January.

By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.

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