Employer-sponsored retirement funds could be an effective avenue into the world of investing for many African-Americans, who have historically lagged behind their Caucasian counterparts in stock market participation, the eighth annual Ariel-Schwab Black Investor Survey indicates.

According to the survey, conducted by the San Francisco-based financial services giant Charles Schwab and Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management, 65% of African-American households earning more than $50,000 annually are invested in the market, while among Caucasians, that number is 80%. Black investing has fluctuated over the years, from a low of 57% in 1998 to a high of 74% in 2002, while Caucasian investing has remained flat.

Retirement plans could help level the playing field, they said. That's because among the African-Americans and Caucasians that participate in a 401(k) or some other employer-sponsored retirement plan, similarities exist. For example, similar percentages of Blacks and Caucasians seek help from investment advisors. The percentages that manage their own portfolios are also similar, as are the numbers who choose a retirement investment and don't make changes. The success that retirement plans could have on closing the gap depends greatly on employers, the survey added. For starters, Blacks prefer information on their retirement plans via meetings with benefits advisers, rather than through e-mail or on the Internet.

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