Putting Minority Investing Habits In Context

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, July 12, 2009

For more than a decade, Chicago-based Ariel Investments has examined the investing habits of African Americans. The company has made it part of its mission to increase minority participation in the stock market and 401(k) plans so minority investors will have a secure retirement.

Now, Ariel Education Initiative, the company's nonprofit affiliate, and Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm, have released what they describe as a groundbreaking study showing that minorities still aren't investing in corporate 401(k)s at the same rate as whites and Asians.

After analyzing 401(k) information for nearly 3 million employees at 57 large, primarily Fortune 500 businesses, Ariel and Hewitt found that regardless of age or income, African American and Hispanic workers have lower participation rates and contribute less to their 401(k)s than their white and Asian counterparts.

Specifically, 66 percent of African American employees and 65 percent of Hispanic employees participate in their company's defined contribution plans, compared with 77 percent of white workers and 76 percent of Asian workers.

The study also showed that African American and Hispanic workers had higher rates of borrowing from their retirement accounts, compared with whites. Asian workers were the least likely to take a loan against their 401(k) plans, with less than 20 percent doing so, the report found.

I don't doubt Ariel's commitment to investor education. But we've known for at least 10 years that minorities are not investing at the same rate as whites. The more pertinent question: Why is there still a gap?

The study gives no answer. Neither does the joint news release from the two companies, or most media reports.

In an interview, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, said she thinks minorities are investing less for five reasons:

-- They don't know enough about investing.

-- They have misinformation about investing in a 401(k) plan.

-- They have trust issues.

-- When they do invest, minorities choose more conservative options such as real estate and insurance products.

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