I'm here to deliver some good and some not-so-good news. According to the folks at the Investment Company Institute (ICI), a trade association for mutual fund companies, more than 50 million U.S. households and more than 87 million individuals owned mutual funds in 2009. That seems pretty good, but remember, that's out of more than 300 million Americans. Worse still, it's about 2 million fewer households and 5 million fewer individuals than last year.

What's going on? Well, shareholders' favorable views of mutual funds fell from 73% in 2008 to 64% in 2009. Clearly, the market's 2008 implosion caused some people to pull back.

Still, most people stayed put, probably in no small part because lots of folks are invested in funds through retirement savings accounts, and they just left those alone. Here, in fact, are some breakdowns, per the ICI:

  • 68% of fund-owning households owned funds through employer-sponsored retirement plans.
  • 69% owned funds outside these plans.
  • Among households owning mutual funds outside employer-sponsored retirement plans, 80% had bought into funds through professional financial advisors.

So what do these many shareholders own? Well, here are some of the biggest and most popular mutual funds out there:

Fund

Net Assets

Expense Ratio / Load

5-Year Average Annual Return

Recent Key Holdings

American Funds Growth Fund of America A (AGTHX)

$145.2 billion

0.75% / 5.75%

2.9%

Barrick Gold (NYSE:ABX), Teva Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ:TEVA)

Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX)

$92.1 billion

0.16% / None

0.4%

Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Goldman Sachs

Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX)

$61.8 billion

0.94% / None

4.6%

Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL), TJX Cos. (NYSE:TJX)

Dodge & Cox Stock (DODGX)

$39.8 billion

0.52% / None

(0.4%)

Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW), Novartis (NYSE:NVS)

Data: Morningstar as of Dec. 21. Load indicates maximum sales load.

A notable trend
"Estimates indicate that in the '50s, individuals directly owned more than 90% of public companies," said SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar in a January speech to the ICI. "And today, that number is closer to 30%."

Consider the Dodge & Cox Stock fund. Last time I checked, Hewlett-Packard was its top holding, representing nearly 5% of the fund's assets. According to Yahoo!, that represents nearly 2% of Hewlett-Packard's shares. And other funds own big chunks of the company, too.

It's true that when our funds own companies, the real owners are us, the mutual fund shareholders. But it does work a little differently. Through our brokerages, we receive proxy voting materials for the companies we own stock in directly, but when it comes to funds, the fund companies are the ones that get to do the voting.

Making matters worse is that many fund companies are simply voting in line with management's wishes and not respecting their shareholders' preferences.

What to do
The situation isn't entirely hopeless. There are several things you can do:

  • Look into how your fund company is voting. Some fund companies' websites keep tabs on proxy votes, as do third parties such as Proxy Democracy.
  • Let your funds' managers know your wishes, and express disappointment if they've been voting counter to those interests.
  • Support regulators who want to make changes to the system. The SEC is doing so and will probably solicit comments from the public in the near future. According to Compliance Week, SEC chief Mary Schapiro has proposed looking into ways to make it easier for companies to communicate directly with shareholders. Keep tabs on the developments at SEC.gov.

Remember that even though mutual funds hold huge chunks of companies, the real owners of the shares are us. If we don't assert our rights, no one's going to do it for us.

Need some ideas on which stocks make the most sense for your retirement? Check out some great stocks for an IRA.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Novartis. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Novartis is a Motley Fool Global Gains selection. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.