However, only two-thirds of Americans can describe the mutual funds, bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or other financial products they hold in their portfolios — down from 76% five years ago, according to a new analysis from investment and retirement site Hearts & Wallets. The good news is investors are more aware of their asset allocation, with 75% being able to identify their mix of assets last year — up from 68% in 2013.
Experts say the numbers are not all that surprising — and explainable.
“I think a similar comparison is knowing how many square feet your house is, but not knowing how many 2x4's it took to construct,” said Daniel Zajac, a partner at Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group in Philadelphia. “Asset allocation is the most important part. If you know anything about your portfolio, know this.”
Layton Cox, an investment strategist at Pathways Financial Partners in Tucson, Ariz., said one reason people may know their asset allocation is because it is easier to understand than underlying funds.
“It's easier to say, ‘I'm invested into international bonds,’ than it is to say, ‘I invest in a Dimensional Fund Advisor's open ended mutual fund that focuses on investment grade global bonds that have a maturity less than 5 years,’” Cox said.
“Fund fact sheets and prospectuses are full of jargon, so the ‘average’ investor doesn't understand them to the fullest and instead just says, ‘I invest in international bonds,’” he added
The study also showed while online brokerages now reach 40% of U.S. households — up from 26% in 2013 — three out of four account owners trade only six or less times a year.
However, what may look like the weakness of passivity may, in fact, be the virtue of patience.
“The perfect investor would only trade twice,” Cox said. “Once to get into the market, and once to get out during liquidation.”
Cox agreed, however, he would imagine the reason most investors are passive traders is because they don't have the knowledge or ability to "time the market," but added, “studies would show that most active managers don't have this ability either, but they just don't know it yet.”
The lack of knowledge, coupled with the fear of making mistakes cause many investors to have a "set it and forget it" mentality, agreed Justin Kumar, senior portfolio manager at Arlington Capital Management in Arlington Heights, Ill.
“Many assume that a broadly diversified portfolio with a variety of asset classes will do them fine in the long run, but they forget about the massive drawdowns,” Kumar pointed out.
He added what may be even worse is for deferred compensation plans: many investors assume just by putting away money before taxes and having their employer match it, that they are actually investing. However, many times these plans' main investments are money market fund — which can return little, he said.
Nevertheless, the paralysis and fear of not knowing and being afraid to ask is not just the individual investor's fault, Zajac said.
“The industry has made buying an investment very easy,” Zajac said. “Unfortunately, the education and expertise required to use these tools most efficiently is yet to catch up.”
The best advice for those investing — or thinking about investing — may be to take time out to understand where and to what their money is going.
“It takes hard work and dedication to educate yourself about investing, so many will just assume that indecision is better than a wrong decisions, but doing nothing may have the worst consequences,” Kumar said.