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Related topics: stocks, bonds, retirement, 401k, Anthony Mirhaydari

Americans, on the whole, just aren't excited about the stock market or investing right now. I can't blame them.

The tech bubble that had us all chasing hot stocks popped more than a decade ago. Since then, recessions, volatility and a go-nowhere market have all but killed the idea of buy-and-hold investing -- buying great stocks and waiting for a run-up -- because you can wait only so long.

In fact, there's been a historic shift away from stocks in the past decade. Many investors have sought the perceived haven of bonds. Many others have stopped funding their retirement portfolios altogether. The national retirement income deficit, or the amount potential retirees still need to save to cover basic expenses and uninsured health care costs, stands at a whopping $4.6 trillion, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Unfortunately, our needs haven't changed despite the brutal investing conditions. Apart from Social Security, most of us will have only the money we can save, and what we can make by investing it, to rely on in retirement. How much you'll need for a comfortable retirement is a personal call, but it's pretty common to hear you'll need a million bucks in the bank. That number seemed less daunting during the go-go years than it does after the Great Recession.

Image: Anthony Mirhaydari

Anthony Mirhaydari

I'm here to tell you it's still possible. You can build a million-dollar 401k. You're likely going to have to reconsider your strategy, save more and take more risks. But the good news is that investors can look forward to what's shaping up to be the best market environment in a generation.

Havens that aren't

I know you're skeptical. To be sure, these are still scary times. And you're on your own.

The shift to 401k's and other self-funded retirement accounts -- requiring us all to manage our own retirement portfolios -- began in the 1980s. But it's hard to separate it from the context of the past 10 years, which saw the worst stock market performance since the Great Depression. At the same time, Wall Street professionals have given us every reason to believe that growing our stocks is not what the game is about.

It can feel like you've been blindfolded, pushed into shark-infested waters and told to swim to shore.

That's why we've seen the average investor shun risk and embrace bonds.

But with Treasurys yielding just 2.4% a year and inflation expectations nearing 2%, the 0.4% real yield they offer isn't going to get you anywhere near that $1 million goal. Investment-grade corporate bonds aren't much better, offering just 4.5% at the expense of added risk.

That leaves investors with little choice but to seek out higher returns in riskier assets. By that I mean stocks.

The bond binge

Yet vast sums of money continue to be pulled out of equities, with more than $49 billion coming out of U.S. fund groups so far this year. Destination: bonds and bond funds, which have received more than $180 billion in fresh capital so far this year.

Because of this, U.S. household exposure to bonds versus equities has moved to levels not seen since the mid-1990s.

U.S. household asset mix © MSN Money

It's been hard to fault this strategy. Since April 2000, the total return for investment-grade corporate bonds is more than 134%; compare this with a 4.8% loss for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX)including dividends. In fact, thanks to this divergence, bonds have outperformed stocks over the past 30 years on a total-return basis.