Are Americans Ignoring Their Finances?

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- U.S. households took a huge financial hit over the past year. Their net worth sank by $12 trillion from the peak. How can Americans rebuild their wealth, and how will financial advisers aid them?

Boston College's Center for Retirement Research recently released an update to the National Retirement Risk Index. (For the sake of full disclosure, my employer, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. underwrites the index research.) It quantifies the impact of the downturn on households' readiness for retirement. The new index shows that 51% of Americans aren't prepared to retire at age 65, compared with 44% in 2007.

The stock-market decline and recession underscore that we, as a society, are ill-equipped for retirement. While the results of the index update don't surprise us, some other critical developments regarding consumer attitudes are more troubling.

Our most recent research at Nationwide shows that the number of households with investable assets who have become disengaged from actively managing their retirement savings has jumped by a third. That means roughly half of all households who have money to invest can be classified as disengaged.

Simply stated, many more households have stopped doing the things they were doing to be prepared for retirement because of the downturn. We saw significant drops in those who say they seek financial advice, worry about their nest egg or are actively trying to boost their portfolios. That's disturbing, given the magnitude of the challenges we all face in rebuilding our portfolio.

Some of the increased disengagement stems from distrust of financial institutions, some of it from not knowing where to turn in a period of historic turbulence and yet more reflects a flight to safety, including the return to simple savings products.

Whatever the reasons, there are several implications for financial-services providers. These emerging attitudes pose a challenge and an opportunity.

Personal-savings rates are going to have to stay at levels that are double (maybe triple) those of the past decade. This increased savings is going to have to be augmented by good financial advice and counsel to help households repair their balance sheets. An asset allocation that is excessively conservative will complicate the repairing of balance sheets and could result in the shortfall persisting well into the next decade. Financial institutions and advisers are going to have to proactively address the concerns of households and help them find the appropriate investment strategy.

While the economy is recovering, cavalier attitudes that all consumers will automatically return with the market probably underestimates the lingering impact of the downturn.

Written by Paul Ballew of Nationwide Mutual Insurance in Columbus, Ohio.

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