Buoyed by a robust stock market, stabilizing unemployment and incrementally improving corporate earnings, senior executives at the nation's largest banks, brokerages and securities firms are more optimistic about the U.S. economy's overall prospects than they've been in years.

According to a survey conducted by Grant Thornton LLP, 72% of banking executives said they believe the U.S. economy will improve in the next six months -- a significantly higher overall sense of optimism than the 64% confidence figure reported by all business leaders.

More telling, 85% of banking executives are expecting improves sales and profits from their own companies in the next six months and 45% are planning to add staff over this same period. However, 11% said they still plan to reduce their headcount in the next six months, a sign that for some there's still plenty of room for improvement.

"Although bankers are more optimistic about the economy in general, we aren’t seeing that optimism translate into increased hiring yet," Nichole Jordan, national banking and securities industry practice leader at Grant Thornton LLP, said in the report. "In the aftermath of the downturn, bankers are proceeding with caution, focusing on building up capital and preparing for the costs of compliance with financial reform regulations."

Still, the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial average and the NASDAQ have rallied up more than 18% and 26%, respectively, in the past year has given most brokerage and security firms reason to believe better times and profits lie ahead.

In fact, the survey of 65 senior executives conducted back in February, found that only 3% of banking and securities executives predict the U.S. economy will regress in the next six months compared to 4% of the doomsayers from other industries.

The survey also found that when it comes to reducing the U.S. government budget deficit, banking execs favor cutting spending three-to-one over raising taxes.

Banking executives' sentiments appear to be in lockstep with those of high net worth investors, particularly those with more than $2 million in assets above beyond their primary residence.

In February, a report commissioned by the Scorpio Partnership and Standard Chartered Private Bank found that these wealthy investors realistically expect to at least triple their net worth in the next decade and predict the market will build on its recent gains for the foreseeable future.

It's a much different story, however, for lower-income Americans, particularly those who are closing in on retirement, have limited savings and investments and are discovering they're painfully unprepared for their impending retirement.

On Tuesday, the Employee Benefit Research Institute served up a sobering report that found that more than half of all Americans aren't confident they'll have the income and resources they need to afford a dignified retirement and, worse, far too many have failed to save or even initiate a retirement planning program.

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