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 Ariel Capital Management, 65% of African-American households earning more than $50,000 annually are invested in the market, while among Caucasian households that number jumps to 80%. Black investing has fluctuated over the years from a low of 57% in 1998 to a high of 74% in 2002. The investment activity of Whites has remained flat over the years, hovering around 80%, the survey said.

Retirement plans, they said, could help level the playing field. That's because among the African-Americans and Caucasians that currently participate in a 401(k) or some other employer-sponsored retirement plan, there exists a striking number of similarities. For example, similar percentages of Blacks and Whites 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 then rarely make changes.

The success that retirement plans could have on closing the gap in Black and White investing, however, depends greatly on employers, the survey added. For starters, Blacks show a preference for receiving information on their retirement plans through one-on-one meetings with benefits advisers, rather than through e-mail or on the Internet. They are particularly receptive to information provided by their employers, the survey said.

"If we can raise the comfort level through more personalized service and stronger communications, we will see a leveling of the playing field," remarked Mellody Hobson, president of the Chicago-based Ariel Capital.

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