Why More Blacks Don't Invest
by Glenn C. Loury
The New York Times Sunday Magazine
June 7, 1998
  

 

The greatest bull market to hit Wall Street since the 1920s has everybody talking about money these days. Such talk puts me in mind of my late and beloved uncle, patriarch of the extended household where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on Chicago's South Side. Uncle Moonie, whose large, round eyes protruded like half-moons beneath his often-furrowed brow, spent most of his waking hours worrying about money: how to get it and, if truth be told, how to stop his wife from spending it. A tenacious businessman, he achieved what for his generation of blacks was an impressive degree of financial security.

But, as a child of the Depression and a veteran of the pre-civil rights racial climate, my uncle had some rather peculiar ideas about investing. Year after year, he stuffed the accumulated profits from his small business into dozens of old fruit juice cans, kept under lock and key in his bedroom closet. Once, when I questioned this strategy, he informed me flatly that he didn't "believe in" banks, nor in the "white folks" who ran them.

Luckily, fortune smiled on our family. No burglar, or fire, ever found those precious cans. But then, neither did the fruit of Uncle Moonie's labors ever find its way into the financial mainstream. My uncle's alienation reflected the racially segregated economy of his day. But the effects of that bygone era continue to distort the economic experience of blacks. For example, among a sample of married-couple households surveyed by the Panel Study on Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan, only 14 percent of blacks owned some stocks or mutual fund shares in 1994. The white rate was 45. Another striking finding: More than half of African Americans households had no balances in either a checking or a savings account, compared with just one sixth of whites.

My Uncle Moonie was not big on racial integration. I can remember him back in the 1960s saying, "I don't give a damn about living next to those white folks. You call me when they start talking about integrating the money!" Well, here we are, some thirty years down the road, and that conversation has yet to begin. Some writers, inclined to minimize the problem of racial inequality in America, are quick to stress how the income gap between blacks and whites has narrowed over the past generation. In their recent book America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom make much of the fact that married black couples outside of the South are now at 90 percent of income parity with comparable whites. But the wealth gap between the races tells another story altogether. In the Michigan survey, nearly a fourth of white families - but only 2 percent of blacks - had wealth of $200,000 or more. Indeed, half of black families had a net worth below $8,400, while the median for white families was over $63,000. What this means is that, while most blacks would have trouble paying cash for a used car, most whites could afford to purchase a new car outright, help a child with the down payment on a first home, and still have funds left over.

With blacks having so few discretionary resources to invest, it is no wonder that they are scarce among equity holders. But their absence from the market has profound implications. For decades to come, wealth created by growing stock values will be sending children to elite colleges, underwriting small business start-ups, and securing a comfortable retirement for American families. And yet, even the newly emergent black middle class is missing out.

How, then, *are* blacks choosing to manage their money? A 1997 Yankelovich survey probed the investment habits of 1,232 black and white households with annual incomes above $50,000. The survey found that blacks, by a margin of two-to-one, considered real estate to be a better overall investment vehicle than stocks, while the ranking among whites was just the opposite. Moreover, high-income blacks put relatively more of their retirement savings than did whites into whole life insurance policies, a notoriously low-return investment. And, they were more likely than whites to express doubts about whether they could trust a financial advisor.

What could account for this psychological gap? Marcus Alexis, an economics professor at Northwestern University and a former governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, noted, "For the vast majority of high-income black families, this current generation is the first to have any real money to invest. Many of them are, perhaps understandably, averse to taking risks." Alexis also stressed how factors of history and sociology gave blacks more familiarity with - and easier access to - certain relatively low-yield investment vehicles. "The selling of whole life insurance policies in black communities was done heavily by black agents," he said. "There was a time when this was the best job many talented blacks could aspire to. They went first to their relatives and friends. Something like one-third of the premium in the first couple of years would accrue as commission to the agents."

This affection for insurance drives John Rogers, the founder and CEO of Ariel Capital Management Inc., to distraction. Fifteen years ago at Ariel, Rogers started the oldest and largest black-managed fund in the nation. Reached in his Chicago offices recently, he talked excitedly about "the huge, untapped market for investment services" among the 1.1 million black households with an annual income above $50,000. Ariel has recently joined forces with the venerable Charles Schwab and Co., Inc., hosting educational seminars aimed primarily at black audiences in a dozen cities across the country. The seminars are drawing enthusiastic crowds. This is a rather different approach than sending someone's brother-in-law around to hawk a garden-variety life insurance policy.

My own conversations with black professionals suggest that such efforts are much needed because, even among well-educated persons with high incomes, many blacks lack knowledge of (or confidence in) today's variegated financial instruments. One man, who covers the information technology beat for a major newspaper, seemed embarrassed to admit that he does not know the rate of interest being paid on the funds he routinely deposits each month in a passbook. "I haven't invested in stocks or mutual funds, even though I know I should," he said. "Partly, I'm suspicious of the market, and wonder if I'd lose my pitifully small stake. Then again, I think to myself, I don't have enough money to make it worthwhile. I know this probably isn't true, but there you are."

A somewhat different story was told by a couple, both with advanced degrees, who work for major non-profit institutions. With a net worth over $300,000, they are wealthier than 99 percent of black families. The husband holds a $150,000 cash value life insurance policy sold to him by a childhood friend. Until five years ago, he invested virtually nothing in the market. After attending a series of financial seminars sponsored by his employer, he began making the maximum contribution to his 401k. That's it, however. "By the time we finish giving to financially needy people in our respective families, there's not a lot left to invest," he sighed.

Ultimately, investing one's money means drawing on social, as well as financial, capital. It requires the investor to be conversant with and - what Uncle Moonie could never do - to "believe in" the institutions of modern finance: the trading accounts, margin calls, the no-load mutual funds. These institutions now constitute part of the decision-making apparatus of everyday life. Familiarity with them is requisite to full participation in our society. Until this happens, blacks will remain outside the warp and woof of American life. It's time to integrate the money.