The mutual fund industry should proudly celebrate Americans' 73% approval rating for 401(k)s, according to an Investment Company Institute report, "Enduring Confidence in the 401(k) System."
In our book, a 73% rating equals a C- grade that, in fact, should be a wake-up call for the industry to do a far better job of equipping Americans to adequately prepare for a decent and healthy life in their old age.
Admittedly, had it not been for the revival of the market three times over the past decade, that approval rating would have been worse, given the dot-com crash of 2001, the mutual fund market-timing scandal of 2003 and the global credit crisis of 2008. To the industry's astonishment, 401(k) investors stayed the course throughout.
However, the reality is that the stock market has returned virtually nothing over the past 10 years. When 401(k) investors are brave enough to open their statements and see balances holding steady, do they realize it's mostly thanks to their own contributions?
The fact that 73% of Americans still believe they can achieve retirement security through their 401(k)s is a testament to the fact our customers are either ill-informed, racked by fear, apathetic, or all three.
Rather than celebrate a C- approval rating among a customer base that obviously doesn't understand the precepts of investing and is gripped by inertia, the industry should view this as a tremendous opportunity to better educate 401(k) investors, to work more closely with plan sponsors to motivate and even excite participants to take charge of a savings portfolio, and to encourage investors to better understand asset allocation, the economy and the markets.
The industry must successfully lobby Washington for all investors to get impartial investment advice, work with schools to include personal finance in the curriculum and encourage investors to check their portfolios more frequently so that they can avoid steep losses in the future, even if it means moving into money market funds or cash-equivalent securities for a prolonged, turbulent period. Neither our customers nor the industry is served well by decimated balances.
If a consumer goods company found that three out of four people approved of their product, they would pull out all the stops to win the loyalty of that missing 25% market share. Can't the ICI admit 401(k)s are off their game?
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