The world is awash in meaningless statistics. As a personal-finance reporter, I sometimes worry I'll be among the first to drown in them.
Financial firms inundate my peers and me with polls, surveys and studies -- some three dozen of the things scurried into my in-box in the past month. Many are of dubious intellectual value. Did you know, for example, that 49 percent of Charles Schwab & Co. clients say now’s a good time to invest in stocks? Yup. A perfectly ambiguous percentage of Schwab investors -- short of a majority yet not a distinct minority -- are bullish on equities. With all due respect to the discount brokerage, why should we care?
While an overloaded in-box makes me cranky, there’s some juicy stuff tucked away among the surveys. Many people will answer financial questions from a pollster that, coming from close friends or family, would likely be greeted with, at best, a brisk “None of your business.” The best surveys are a sort of intriguing economic voyeurism, giving us statistical snapshots of our neighbors’ finances and revealing trends.
The key is filtering out the nonsense. One survey in my in-box questioned 150 people -- a number more appropriate for the seating capacity of a Denny's than for a poll sample size.
With all that noted, here are some of the most striking findings from financial pollsters in the past month:
1. Advisers to the Wealthy: Stop Being So Generous!
Here’s a window into the private conversations between advisers and their rich clients: According to a U.S. Trust survey of 300 professional advisers to the wealthy, 50 percent prefer that their clients accumulate at least $500,000 in liquid assets before they start giving to charity. Almost a quarter would like their clients to amass $3 million before parting with some of their wealth.
By this standard, most of those now giving to charity would keep their wallets shut. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans of all income levels give away about 4.7 percent of their earnings each year. Those making $50,000 to $100,000 donate the greatest share of their income.
A companion survey found high-net-worth clients are far more inclined to be generous than their advisers -- a result undermined by the fact that U.S. Trust polled only those wealthy who were already “actively engaged in charitable giving.”
2. Cash-Hungry Muggers Should Focus on Men
Muggers looking for good old-fashioned cash should choose their targets carefully: A Visa survey shows that two-thirds of Americans carry less than $50 in their wallets, and 40 percent carry less than $20. Men are four times more likely than women to carry more than $100 in cash.
3. Surveys Ignore the Biggest Retirement Roadblocks
A study sponsored by Principal Financial Group asked financial advisers what holds back workers from adequately preparing for retirement. The most commonly mentioned constraints: “not saving enough” (cited by 74 percent), “not starting to save early enough” (70 percent) and “living beyond their means” (69 percent).
Fair enough, but let me suggest two constraints the study overlooked. First: not earning enough. The U.S. Census Bureau says the inflation-adjusted median household income last year was $51,017. That's dropped 9 percent since 1999.
Second: not having access to a retirement plan at work. Under a study titled “Access, Participation Strong in Employer-Provided Retirement Plans,” mutual fund trade group Investment Company Institute revealed a statistic that contradicted its own headline. Just 50 percent of workers age 21 to 64 have access to a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan. That rate, the lowest on record, hasn't budged since 2009 and is 10 points lower than in 2000.
4. Bosses Win No Points for ‘Fun’ -- and No, You Can’t Work From Home
They earn more than us. They get to tell us what to do all day. But we still like our bosses. According to Kronos Inc., 69 percent of employees think their managers set a good example. When asked to choose between a boss who invests in professional development and one who makes the workplace “fun,” 61 percent of respondents decided against fun. The fictional antics of Michael Scott from NBC’s “The Office” may be having an effect here.
If your boss is being a pain about working from home or providing other forms of workplace flexibility, you're not alone. A survey by human resources nonprofit WorldatWork found fewer companies offering most forms of workplace flexibility. In 2010, 57 percent of employers offered employees the option of condensing workweeks into fewer than five days, compared with just 43 percent this year.
5. Pessimism Can Be Highly Selective
Given the economic trauma of recent years, I'm not surprised when people are gloomy. I am surprised when people think everyone but themselves is in for a bad time. That trend is most obvious among the wealthy, who are benefiting most from rising stock and real estate prices. In a PNC survey of affluent investors, a majority were optimistic about the performance of the stock market, the real estate market and their investment portfolios in the next six months. Yet somehow only 32 percent were upbeat on the U.S. economy.
6. Returned-to-Nesters Aren’t Budging -- or Reproducing
A majority of consumers, 51 percent, told LearnVest and Chase that they feel “it’s too expensive to raise a child today,” and 37 percent said they'd delayed having children because of financial concerns.
To explore one such worry, Securian Financial Group surveyed 700 young adults still living with their parents. Just 10 percent pay rent, and 91 percent said they have no deadline for moving out. In their defense, 82 percent said they help with chores. I wonder what a survey of their parents would reveal.
7. Middle-Class Bills May Trump Turkeys
While the wealthy tend to be optimistic about their ability to make money in the market now, dozens of surveys highlight how many middle-class Americans are weighed down by bills and stagnant wages. In a Wells Fargo poll of the middle class, 59 percent said “paying monthly bills” is their top financial concern -- up from 37 percent two years ago. Both paying those bills and saving is "not possible" for 42 percent, while the poll found more than half of those in their 50s despair that they'll "never be able to retire."
Two studies encapsulate this tale of diverging attitudes: A Discover Financial Services survey found shoppers plan to spend an average of $1,014 during the holidays, up 20 percent from last year. Yet a relatively small group of high-end consumers drive much of holiday spending. Thus, a study of middle-class military families by First Command Financial Services also found 62 percent are cutting back on Thanksgiving spending and travel.
8. The Ostrich Investing Approach Lives
Sometimes people admit to opinions that are, according to the vast majority of experts, foolish. Almost every retirement plan and pension puts workers’ retirement assets in stocks to some degree, and a Federated Investor survey of advisers found 92 percent are confident that equities “will provide a solid result for clients.” Nevertheless, just 24 percent of middle-class Americans are confident in stocks as an investment for retirement, according to Wells Fargo.
That's down from 30 percent in 2011 -- even as the stock market is way up. Will improving financial literacy help? Not if Americans don’t want to listen to industry experts and reporters like me. A majority of middle-class Americans -- 51 percent -- say, “I have little interest in learning more about investing.” Well then.
Other stories by Ben Steverman: