"The Social Security debate is in the news twice a day, every day," Cassidy said. "That's helping make people aware. They're saying to themselves, `Gee, I really need to do something.'"
Bush has said repeatedly that payroll taxes diverted to the accounts would yield a better return in the markets, though he concedes that the accounts wouldn't solve Social Security's fiscal woes. He didn't pursue the idea as vigorously during his first term when markets were tanking.
Mutual fund legend John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group Inc., bemoaned in a recent article that "asset gathering has become the fund industry's driving force." He said the pressure to produce quick gains coupled with publicity that turned fund managers with the best short-term records into "stars" has led to speculation.
The average mutual fund now holds a stock for less than a year, according to Bogle. The average investor owns a fund share for four years, down from 16 years in the 1950s when Bogle started in the business.
Some mutual fund companies are making it easy for investors to jump in and out of funds, reducing fees that discouraged short-term trading and pricing fund shares throughout the day. Others are going in the opposite direction, tacking on fees to discourage market timing.
Rydex Investments, a mutual fund company in Rockville, offers a number of funds that accommodate rapid trading, allowing investors to react to fast-breaking news, said David C. Reilly, director of portfolio strategy. The firm, begun in 1993, has amassed $14 billion in assets, with nearly one-third of that amount added in the last year.
Reilly isn't critical of traditional mutual funds in which investors are encouraged to hold shares through market downturns to take advantage of long-term gains. He said Rydex funds simply enable investors to better control risk.
"Mutual funds are such an established part of the investing landscape," Reilly said. "But `buy and hold' has been difficult, and investors are searching for new strategies."