The Root Interview: Mellody Hobson on Black Investors

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

It's no surprise that middle-class black Americans, hit the hardest by the recession, scaled back investments and tapped out their savings. But their financial situation may be startling when compared with that of their white counterparts.


According to the 2010 Ariel Black Investor Survey, 48 percent of the 501 blacks polled said that they had pulled money out of their savings to make ends meet in the past two years, versus 31 percent of whites who did the same. Also, blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites to have reduced their contributions to 401(k) plans.

"We knew that our unemployment rate was twice as high as our white counterparts'," Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, tells The Root in an interview. "But we really took a hit during this recession."


Hobson, however, points out a few promising surprises in the 2010 survey. Black Americans reported feeling a higher level of optimism for the economy than did their white counterparts; they also reported having a change of heart about investing in real estate.

Here, the 2009 Root 100 honoree provides some sound financial advice for weathering the current storm — so take heed.

The Root: The survey comes at an interesting time for financial markets and the overall economy. What would you say is the most surprising element about this year's survey?

Mellody Hobson: For me the big surprise was the extent to which the recession affected African Americans. We knew that our unemployment rate was twice as high as our white counterparts'. But we really took a hit during this recession, and the numbers bear that out in so many ways — not only [with] us reducing the amount that we're contributing to our retirement accounts, but also us having to tap into our retirement dollars, which is one of the things you do [only as a] last resort.


TR: But what's interesting from this year's survey is that black Americans are still very hopeful about the economy — more so than their white counterparts.

MH: Right. I don't think it's a surprise if you're African American because you know that we are optimistic — which I think is what America is all about. So I think from that perspective, the degree to which we are optimistic, the degree to which we expect a brighter future, the degree to which we are anticipating an economic recovery versus our white counterparts, those numbers are substantially different. The degree is surprising, but the optimism is not.


TR: What's behind that jump in optimism?

TR: Even in these bad times we've experienced?

MH: Yes; it gives us something to look forward to, and it gets us through.

TR: Does Ariel have a specific initiative under way to help bridge the gap between blacks and whites when it comes to making the right investment choices and saving for retirement?


MH: That's my life's work, and that's what we do every single day. We're dedicated to making the stock market a subject at dinner table conversations in the black community. So every time I'm on television and I am talking about the stock market … every time I'm giving a speech, all of [that is] really to explain and educate  and reassure, because there's been no 20-year period in the history of the stock market where an individual has lost money — ever. So even though we have seen a bad decade just close out on the stock market, it actually gives us more conviction about the future and the positives that are likely to come.

The good thing in this survey [is that] for the first time in 12 years, African Americans have said the stock market is the better investment over real estate. It underscores that this is really a teachable moment when it comes to investing and saving, certainly for the black community, but I would argue for all of us.


TR: But why the change in mindset about stocks versus real estate? How much is it related to the decline in the housing market?

MH: It probably has everything to do with the real estate bubble bursting. It probably has shifted that dynamic. As the stock market has outperformed other investments over time, it's a better investment.


TR: What is Ariel's overall outlook for the economy?

TR: What would you say to those who are concerned about their jobs and reduced pay, and are facing a mound of debt? What would you advise black Americans to do in this current market?


MH: These solutions are not just for African Americans. They are for all Americans who are faced with those conditions. But I think the major thing is to say, make a commitment to not digging any deeper. That's the first place to start.

If you still have a job, [think about] really cutting back and constraining your spending. You may not be in a position to pay down a lot of debt or to save a lot of money, but to not go further [into debt] would be the number one goal. For those who are finding their pay hasn't been cut, they are still worried. I would tell them to make sure they are shoring up their emergency fund. In the event that something does happen, they have some kind of cushion to fall back on. And your retirement money is not your emergency fund. Those are two very different things, even though we have had to use some of our retirement money as an emergency fund in this recent financial crisis.


And then, third, what I would suggest, again for those who are employed — still worried, nervous, squirreling away more money — is to again make a commitment not on pile on any more debt.

I do think the fact that our society is saving more and our saving rate has gone up is a harbinger of good things to come. We will be in better financial shape for the purchases that we make, as opposed to stretching ourselves to make them.


Monée Fields-White is a Chicago-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.

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