Burned Investors Watch Money Closely in '09


BOSTON (TheStreet) — As 2009 draws to a close, markets are up and retirement accounts are recovering from the 40% to 50% hit many investors suffered.

That doesn't mean the recession that defined 2008 is over and forgotten. Big losses made investors more risk-averse in 2009. The silver lining, however, is that many became more hands-on with their money and open to alternatives that go beyond traditional stock plays.

Post-recession investors are showing a renewed willingness to do their homework, and firms like Fidelity Investments, T. Rowe Price (Stock Quote: TROW), Vanguard and Charles Schwab (Stock Quote: SCHW) have been rolling out Web-based products to help them.

Every month in 2009, firms launched educational portals intended to empower investors with resources, online calculators and message boards. Wondering whether to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth? There was no shortage of online guidance available to talk you through the pros and cons.

Validation of the thirst for online guidance came in September when Intuit (Stock Quote: INTU), the maker of QuickBooks, Quicken and TurboTax software, agreed to buy personal-finance site Mint.com for $170 million, a smaller rival that was eroding its market share.

Having consumers armed with a do-it-yourself approach to their finances meant trying times for professional wealth managers, many of whom gained an undeserved black eye from the shenanigans of high-profile con men, such as Bernie Madoff. A survey conducted by Northstar Research Partners found that while wealthy investors will continue to rely on financial advisers, many of those lacking advisers see no reason to hire them. Among those surveyed, 89% who had advisers when the market dropped in late 2008 planned to keep working with the same person. Only 10% of those respondents said they trust financial advisers.

Major banks are also facing a deficit of confidence. With the number of bank failures topping 130 this year and the fee backlash intensifying, some Americans are bypassing brand names like Citigroup and Bank of America and heading to check-cashing stores, Wal-Mart MoneyCenters and pawn shops. A study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 7.7% of U.S. households were "unbanked," which translates to 9 million households and 17 million adults. An additional 18% of households, or 43 million adults, were "underbanked," meaning they have checking or savings accounts but rely on alternative financial services.

For many, the stock market returned to their good graces this year owing to prices that were driven down by the market woes of the previous year. For decimated retirement savings, the upside of stockpiling shares during a bear market can be a lifesaver when things turn bullish again.

Skittishness about future retirement security also led to the renewed popularity of annuity products and the promise of a steady income stream. Bolstered by the success of exchange traded funds many are starting to also move onto the logical progression of playing the commodities market.

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