The Investor Class Speaks Another presidential election year is upon us. When we asked our readers what they were thinking about, we got some surprises
(MONEY Magazine) – For the past year, politicians on the left and the right have been bandying about the term "investor class." No question, this rising political force--that is, us--was the main target of President George W. Bush's 2003 tax cuts, which slashed the rates on qualified dividends and capital gains. But what do investors really want from their elected officials in Washington?
To get an answer, MONEY's in-house researchers, Andy Borinstein and Doug King, polled an online panel of the magazine's subscribers for 10 days in mid-November; more than 700 people responded to 24 of the most pressing questions about politics and the economy. (Some of the results are charted below and on page 92.) To supplement the survey's results, I subsequently spoke at length with 11 of those respondents.
Our survey does not represent a cross section of America as a whole, nor of the broad range of investors who hold 401(k)s and other passive retirement vehicles. Our respondents are overwhelmingly male (82%) and married (80%). Politically, they're disproportionately Republican (49% vs. 31% independent and 20% Democratic), and almost all describe their views as either moderate (52%) or conservative (38%). They make good money (median income $98,000) and have socked away substantial portfolios (median size $387,000). According to a study by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry Association, the total equity investor population is less affluent and includes more women and fewer married people. Still, we believe that our group is representative of leading-edge investors. And as the 2004 election year kicks off and the courting of the investor class intensifies, we think our panel is worth listening to.
What's clear from the survey's results is that while investors personally gained from the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and look forward to a continuing economic recovery this year, they remain deeply divided on the administration's economic policies and anxious about pocketbook issues. Surprisingly, perhaps, given their political leanings and their financial wherewithal, their reviews of President Bush's overall performance were decidedly mixed, with a near-even split between those who said he's doing an excellent-to-good job and those who rated him fair to poor. On the economy, a key factor in this year's presidential race, the majority (58%) gave Bush fair-to-poor marks. And at a time when the mutual fund scandals have been dominating the financial news, 66% agreed that the government has not done enough over the past 12 months to protect individual investors.
By the time we began polling, the advance gross domestic product (GDP) numbers for the third quarter were already out, showing that the economy had expanded faster than during any period for the past 19 years. Those numbers have since been revised upward to 8%, and economists expect 4% growth in 2004. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that investors were optimistic, with 61% saying they think the economy will improve in the next 12 months and only 4% believing it will get worse.
But while investors were positive about the economy generally, they were not so sunny about a number of specific issues. Asked to rank their level of concern about a dozen different issues, at least half of the investors said that they were very or somewhat concerned about all but one. Heading the list was spiraling health-care costs (95%), followed by the solvency of the Social Security system (83%), rising state taxes (80%), the war in Iraq (80%), a declining stock market (79%) and escalating property taxes (79%). Only 49% were concerned about a real estate collapse.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE TAX CUTS
While the vast majority of investors (73%) reported that they personally gained from the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, a whopping 84% would rather have had the money used for something else. At least half would have preferred additional spending on Social Security, Medicare, job creation, health insurance or education. (See the bar chart below.)
"I think the tax cut was shortsighted," says Christopher Tankersly, 37, a drug researcher at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif. and registered Democrat. "It was a good political move, and it sounded good on paper. But in the end I think all it did was stress the finances of the government." Adds George Davis, 35, a Republican in The Woodlands, Texas who works as an emergency-room physician: "I think the tax cuts were too big, and I am worried about the deficit. You have to pay it back at some point."
As for their own tax burdens, more than half (53%) said their federal income tax burden was about right. But the vast majority (81%) noted that their state and local taxes have gone up in the past 12 months. "At least in my case, the increase in our local property taxes and our state taxes has offset any decrease in our federal taxes," says George Reilly, 64, a retired educator and political independent in Mystic, Conn.
Tax cuts didn't even make the top 10 when our panel was asked how important 18 issues were to them personally. Instead, rising health-care costs topped the list (96% called that very or somewhat important to them), followed by putting Social Security on a sound footing (94%), enforcing securities laws to protect investors (93%), fixing Medicare (91%) and strengthening education (88%). By contrast, making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent was very or somewhat important to only 69%; fewer gave high priority to cutting the capital-gains tax (64%), eliminating the dividend tax (63%) or getting rid of estate taxes (61%).
"Personally, I'm happy to get a tax cut," says Republican Robert Parker, 49, an Atwater, Calif. computer consultant and retired Air Force officer. "But when I look at how much the war on terrorism is costing and the other large items out there, like changes to Medicare, I am watching it. Worried is too strong a word, but I am concerned."
A VOTING BLOC?
Across the country, nearly half of voters favor Bush. Our investors, despite their Republican leanings, are only a bit more positive. Asked how they would vote if the 2004 election were held today, exactly half chose Bush. Among the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, not one could yet count on double-digit support from investors: Howard Dean garnered the top spot (9%), followed by Wesley Clark (7%), John Kerry (4%), Joe Lieberman (3%) and Dick Gephardt (2%). Nearly one-fifth of all the respondents (18%) were undecided.
But as the campaign to woo the investor class goes into high gear, here's one thing that's sure: Its members will vote. Unlike Americans at large, this is one group that goes to the polls in droves. Among our respondents, 97% are currently registered to vote and 96% did vote in the 2000 presidential race.