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U.S. Investors See Passive Investing as Path to Wealth

U.S. Investors See Passive Investing as Path to Wealth

Story Highlights

  • 71% of U.S. investors say index funds work better than stock-picking
  • 89% say "time in the market" is better strategy than "timing the market"
  • Few individual stock investors (19%) trade frequently; most rarely do

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Despite the proliferation of online brokerage websites and apps that can facilitate frequent trading, U.S. investors -- which Gallup defines as adults with at least $10,000 invested in stocks or bonds -- are drawn mainly to hands-off investing strategies.

  • The large majority of investors say that "passive investing" (71%) is superior to "active investing" (29%) to maximize returns over the long term.

  • Most investors believe that "time in the market" (89%) is a more important factor than "timing the market" (11%) to achieving high returns.

  • Four in five investors who own individual stocks (82%) say they trade stocks no more than a few times a year, including 22% who say they never do. The remaining one in five trade more frequently, but most of these say they trade monthly rather than daily or weekly.

These findings come from the latest Gallup Investor Optimism Index survey, conducted June 22-29. The $10,000 threshold for adults to qualify for the survey includes investments in stocks, bonds or mutual funds, either within or outside of a retirement account. Approximately four in 10 U.S. adults meet this criterion.

"Set It and Forget It" Mindset Prevails

The survey defined "passive investing" as buying index funds that track the market average; "active investing" was described as picking specific stocks to try to outperform the market.

When asked to say which of the two approaches "is the best way to maximize investment returns over the long term," large majorities of all major subgroups of investors choose passive over active investing. Although it might be assumed that younger investors favor the more aggressive approach, there is little difference between those under age 50 -- the youngest group Gallup can analyze, given the older age skew of investors with at least $10,000 saved -- and those 65 and older. There is also no significant difference in preferences by gender or whether investors have more than or less than $100,000 in investments.

U.S. Investors' Preferred Investing Style
Which type of investing do you think is the best way to maximize investment returns over the long term? 1) Passive investing, where you buy index funds that track the market average; 2) Active investing, where you pick specific stocks to try to outperform the market
Passive investing Active investing
% %
U.S. investors 71 29
Retired 75 25
Not retired 69 31
18 to 49 71 29
50 to 64 66 34
65 and older 77 23
Men 70 30
Women 72 28
$100,000+ invested 72 28
Less than $100,000 68 32
Gallup Panel, June 22-29, 2021

Similarly, large majorities of all major subgroups of investors believe that "time in the market" is more important than "timing the market" to achieving high returns. However, emphasis on "time in the market" is nearly universal among retirees, at 95%, while slightly fewer nonretirees (86%) favor this approach. Five percent of retirees versus 14% of nonretirees think timing the market is better.

More Own Stock Funds Than Individual Stocks

The survey asked investors if they currently have any money invested in each of five different types of financial instruments: stock funds (including index, mutual and electronically traded funds), individual stocks, bonds, real estate (not including their primary home) and gold.

In line with their preference for passive investing, many more investors report that they own stock funds than own individual stocks, 84% vs. 67%, respectively. Additionally, 50% have money invested in bonds, 25% in real estate and 11% in gold. Although it wasn't measured on the current survey, a recent Gallup investor survey found that 6% are invested in bitcoin.

While the majority of investors (58%) have both stock funds and individual stock investments, about a quarter (26%) have only stock funds and 9% have only individual stocks. The remaining 7% have neither; instead, they are invested in bonds, gold or real estate, to the exclusion of stocks.

Men and investors with $100,000 or more invested are significantly more likely than their counterparts to have both types of stock investments -- funds and individual stocks. Meanwhile, women and investors with less than $100,000 invested are more likely to have neither type of investment. Women are also more likely than men to have stock funds only.

U.S. Investors' Ownership of Stock Funds and Individual Stocks
Have stock
funds only
Have individual
stocks only
Have both individual
and stock funds
Have neither
% % % %
U.S. investors 26 9 58 7
Retired 29 7 59 5
Not retired 24 10 57 8
18 to 49 24 13 53 10
50 to 64 24 5 64 7
65 and older 31 9 56 3
Men 20 11 65 3
Women 30 7 52 10
$100,000+ invested 22 8 65 5
Less than $100,000 29 12 47 12
Gallup Panel, June 22-29, 2021

Investors Trade Infrequently, Rely on Full-Service Broker

Among all investors who have individual stocks, few can be described as "day traders," with just 1% reporting that they normally trade stock daily. Another 4% say they trade weekly and 14% monthly. Instead, investors' penchant for taking the long view is borne out by the finding that 82% trade only a few times a year or less, including 22% who never make stock trades.

Frequency of Stock Trading Among U.S. Investors
How often do you trade (buy or sell) individual stocks either within or outside a retirement account?
Jun 22-29, 2021
Daily 1
Weekly 4
Monthly 14
A few times a year 32
About once a year 12
Less often 16
Never 22
Based on investors who own individual stocks
Gallup Panel

About a third of investors owning individual stocks (31%) say they trade stocks themselves using a discount broker, while 44% use a full-service broker and 16% a combination of the two. The remaining 9% volunteer some other way of trading.

When they do trade, most stock investors who use a discount broker say they make their trades online using a computer (68%), while 24% say they use an app; just 8% do it by phone.

Bottom Line

Discount brokerages that offer low fees and investing apps make it easier than ever for Americans to invest in individual stocks and even day-trade. Popular digital investing platforms attracted attention this year, as many average investors got in on buying frenzies involving GameStop and AMC Entertainment stock. So far, however, U.S. investors with $10,000 or more invested are mostly eschewing that excitement and instead buying and holding stocks or stock funds for the long term.

Past Gallup research has found that American investors at this level of investing are focused mainly on saving for retirement, and the slight majority are fairly risk intolerant when it comes to investing. As a result, they are likely to stick with their cautious approach to investing for the foreseeable future.

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Learn more about how the Gallup Investor Optimism Index works.

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