There's little doubt that the U.S. economy is inching back from the abyss. Employment is better, Europe appears to be finally getting its house in order, auto sales are up and there's even some hope that housing may be near a bottom. And the best leading indicator, the stock market, is pointing toward better times ahead for U.S. business.

Still, there is a good deal of uncertainty on the horizon. And instead of feeling optimistic for the future of the bank investment programs, I find myself wondering if we're actually at the beginning of the end.

So what are these black clouds on the horizon? Unfortunately, there are quite a few. And they're big.

First, despite the recent gains in the markets, too many investors have been cashing out at record levels. Volume on the NYSE is at its lowest level since 1999 and the NASDQ 50-day average volume is at a six-year low.

In fact, several big banks and broker/dealers have recently announced new layoffs due to slowness in areas like trading and corporate finance.

Despite the Dow Jones Industrial Average's more than 93% gain from its March 2009 low, and a nearly 95% advance by the S&P 500 (through January), the net amount of cash that individual investors withdrew from mutual funds investing mainly in U.S. stocks was $134.47 billion in 2011, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund trade association. That yearly total is only surpassed by a $147.5 billion outflow in 2008, and marks five straight years of net outflows from those funds totaling $469 billion.

To be sure, the economy is still fragile despite its recent improvements. Money is tight, people are paying off their debt, and interest rates are low.

But there are some pretty strong indicators that the problems are not temporary, but rather part of a dramatic shift in attitudes about banks, brokerage firms, government and investments. Survey after survey indicates that there may be some very negative fundamental shifts in attitudes about the core of our business.

A recent global survey of 30,000 respondents conducted online by the public relations firm Edelman found drops in confidence across the board in a little more than a year. Confidence that information from the government was "credible" or "very credible" declined from 43% in 2011 to 29% in 2112.

And in a survey just released by Harris Interactive, only 17% of respondents had a positive impression of the financial services industry, down from 22% just last year. That survey found that the reputations of Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs all fell significantly. The one glimmer of light is that many still trust their own financial advisor, according to a survey conducted by John Hancock Financial in late 2011 that showed 82% of investors who work with a financial advisor had a high level of trust in that person.

And the market itself hasn't escaped the negative opinions. In another recent survey conducted by Wells Fargo, 68% of respondents said they aren't confident in the stock market as a place to invest for retirement.

So, after Bernie Madoff, AIG, Lehman Brothers, swaps, mortgage-backed securities, TARP and the entire occupy Wall Street movement, I think it's safe to say that the reputation and trustworthiness of the financial services industry has taken a pretty good hit. Only time will tell if the industry will ever fully recover.

Perhaps the most significant development of our time is the pervasiveness of the Internet, social networking and the explosion of ecommerce.

Pew research indicates that at the end of 2009 (the most recent figures), 93% of U.S. teens used the Internet as did 74% of all adults 18 and over. Worldwide, there are an estimated 3.1 billion email accounts.

And as for social networking, there are more than 800 million Facebook users and 250 million tweets per day.

So, the questions are: How far will this online trend affect brokerage? Will today's twenty- and thirty-somethings actually go to a physical bank or brokerage office and feel comfortable getting advice and buying investments from a live person? Or will the mere thought of a face-to-face conversation be a deal killer? Even if they've gotten past the "trust issues" of banks and investing, is it possible that the coming generation will demand these services be delivered virtually? I can state with a high degree of confidence that my two sons (age 21 and 25) have not been in a bank or brokerage office in their adult lives.

So all the numbers and statistics boil down to three basic questions: Will the next generations, GenX and the "Millennials," have the money to invest? Will they have trust and faith in the markets, financial institutions and advisors that are the foundation of our system? And will they walk into the brick and mortar locations that have been a critical part of our relationship-focused distribution system and buy investment products from a live person?

One can make a strong argument that our foundation is solid. That the negatives are temporary and given time, a decent economic recovery and perhaps some political fortitude, things will be ok. Let's hope. But you also shouldn't ignore the fact that the answer to at least one of these questions might be "no."

Regardless of global economics or domestic politics, financial institutions can only do what's within their power. They can and must work to rebuild the trust and confidence lost over the past five years. It is incumbent upon banks, insurance companies and broker dealers to maintain their focus on their customers, and not necessarily on just their bottom line (as BofA learned when it announced its short-lived plans to charge for debit card usage).

And financial institutions that ignore online distribution strategies do so at their own risk. Just ask the U.S. Postal Service what it thought of email 20 years ago.

There's no doubt that business is changing. You can't fight demographics or the Internet. No one really knows what our business will look like next year, let alone in five or 10 years.

You don't need a crystal ball to see serious challenges facing bank investment programs. For 30 years, banks and credit unions have found ways to grow and deliver quality products and financial solutions to millions of people. Let's hope that 30 years from now, banks will still be meeting and exceeding the expectations of their customers.

Paul Werlin is the president of Human Capital Resources Inc.

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