Spokane Journal of Business

Recession said to provide wake-up call for some investors

Many people report they are saving more, paring debt after long downturn

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Fidelity Investments' "Five Years Later" study, which examines the attitudes and behaviors of investors since the financial crisis started in 2008, shows that despite significant personal financial losses and hardship, the event helped boost investor confidence by spurring both positive and permanent behaviors. Those behaviors range from increasing retirement savings rates to decreasing debt and building emergency funds.

When the financial crisis started, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of investors reported they were either scared or confused. Investors had good reasons to feel this way, as nearly half (47 percent) of respondents say their household lost significant assets as a result of the crisis, with an average loss of 34 percent at the lowest point. Additionally, 17 percent says the head of their household lost a job and 35 percent of households experienced a large drop in income.

While those data highlight the downside of the crisis, more than half (56 percent) moved beyond their feelings of fear and confusion and significantly altered their financial mindset and behavior in a positive way.

"Emerging from the depths of the crisis, many investors found resolve and started taking control of their personal economy," says Kathleen Murphy, president of Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments. "Whether it was increasing contribution rates to a 401(k) or IRA, adjusting asset allocation, or increasing the frequency of financial discussions with family, the silver lining of this crisis is that it spurred investors to reassess and take action to improve their finances. We have seen this firsthand with seminar attendance at our local branches nearly doubling since 2007."

From scared to prepared

While respondents were split between blaming the financial crisis on banks and lenders (38 percent) and Americans who overextended themselves (38 percent), the majority (56 percent) now believe that it's entirely their responsibility to prepare for retirement, reflecting individuals' recognition that they must take greater interest and control of their personal finances. In fact, more than half (56 percent) of investors indicated that they transitioned from being "scared or confused" to "prepared or confident." Following are some of the actions those investors took:

•Forty-two percent said they increased their contribution rates to their workplace savings plan, individual retirement accounts (IRA), or health savings account, and more than half (55 percent) now agree that they feel better prepared for retirement than before the crisis. Conversely, only 19 percent of investors who are still scared or confused increased their savings rate. As a result, fewer (34 percent) feel better prepared for retirement than before the crisis.

•Forty-nine percent said they have decreased their personal debt, and nearly three-quarters (72 percent) said they have less personal debt now than they did before the crisis hit. Conversely, only 31 percent of investors who are still scared and confused said they reduced personal debt.

•Forty-two percent said they increased their emergency fund, and 80 percent of those same respondents now say they have a better understanding of their finances than before the financial downturn. Conversely, only 24 percent of investors who are still scared or confused said they increased their emergency fund.

•Sixty-four percent are more interested than before the crisis in guaranteed income products, such as annuities, to provide a steady cash flow in retirement.

•Seventy-eight percent of the "prepared and confident" respondents said those actions are permanent changes in their behavior (compared with 59 percent of investors who are still scared or confused).

"These positive behavioral changes found in the survey are significant, and we are seeing a similar trend with some of our workplace participants increasing their savings since the downturn," says James M. MacDonald, president of workplace investing at Fidelity Investments. "We're starting to witness a more engaged individual emerge over the last five years, and we've seen some of the inertia that held many back start to dissipate. Fidelity has seen a 33 percent increase in participants seeking guidance with their retirement planning over the last several years, and we know increased engagement will ultimately lead to better outcomes."

The study also asked where investors sought help as the financial crisis started to unfold. The leading source for guidance was a financial professional (30 percent), followed by a spouse or family member (26 percent). Guidance from financial professionals also ranked among the highest in helpfulness at 90 percent. As a result of the crisis, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of respondents now rely more on a financial professional than they did in the past.

"The financial crisis created an opportunity for financial professionals to provide much needed context and clarity to investors," says Scott E. Couto, president of Fidelity Financial Advisor Solutions. "While investors are feeling more engaged and accountable for their finances, many are still too conservatively allocated. Financial professionals have an opportunity to help investors regain confidence with taking on an appropriate amount of risk to meet their financial goals."

Fidelity developed anew Viewpoints article that outlines five key actions investors can taketo exert more control of their personal economy, many of which build on the themes uncovered in the study by those investors who have made the shift to prepared or confident. The actions range from creating an emergency fund, to tax-smart retirement saving and income strategies, to rethinking what is considered to be risky.

For more information on the Fidelity Five Years Later Study, anexecutive summaryandinfographicscan be found on Fidelity.com.

The Fidelity Five Years Later study was conducted online among nearly 1,200 adult investors by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communication using GfK's KnowledgePanelduring the period of February 12-25, 2013.

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