401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances, and Loan Activity in 2009

November 2010
EBRI Issue Brief #350
Paperback, 68 pp.
PDF, 1,575 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2010

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Executive Summary

CONSISTENT SAMPLE: Because 401(k) balances can fluctuate with market returns from year to year, meaningful analysis of 401(k) plans must examine how participants’ accounts have performed over the long term. Looking at consistent participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database over the six-year period from 2003 to 2009 (which included one of the worst bear markets for stocks since the Great Depression), the study found:

• After rising in 2003 and for the next four consecutive years, the average 401(k) retirement account fell 27.8 per-cent in 2008, before rising 31.9 percent in 2009.

• The average 401(k) account balance moved up and down with stock market performance, but over the entire six-year time period increased at an average annual growth rate of 10.5 percent, attaining $109,723 at year-end 2009.

• The median (or midpoint, half above and half below) 401(k) account balance increased at an average annual growth rate of 14.7 percent over the 2003–2009 period to $59,381 at year-end 2009.

THE BULK OF 401(K) ASSETS CONTINUED TO BE INVESTED IN STOCKS: On average, at year-end 2009, 60 percent of 401(k) participants’ assets were invested in equity securities through equity funds, the equity portion of balanced funds, and company stock. Thirty-six percent was in fixed-income securities such as stable-value investments and bond and money funds.

MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS OF 401(K) PLANS INCLUDED TARGET-DATE FUNDS IN THEIR INVESTMENT LINEUP AT YEAR-END 2009: At year-end 2009, nearly 10 percent of the assets in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database was invested in target-date funds and 33 percent of 401(k) participants held target-date funds. Also known as lifecycle funds, they are designed to simplify investing and to automate account rebalancing.

NEW EMPLOYEES CONTINUED TO USE BALANCED FUNDS, INCLUDING TARGET-DATE FUNDS: Across all but the oldest age group, more new or recent hires invested their 401(k) assets in balanced funds, including target-date funds. At year-end 2009, about 42 percent of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in balanced funds, compared with 36 percent in 2008, and about 7 percent in 1998. At year-end 2009, 31 percent of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s was invested in lifecycle funds, compared with almost 23 percent at year-end 2008.

401(K) PARTICIPANTS CONTINUED TO SEEK DIVERSIFICATION OF THEIR INVESTMENTS: The share of 401(k) accounts invested in company stock continued to shrink, falling by half of a percentage point (to 9.2 percent) in 2009. That continued a steady decline that started in 1999. Recently hired 401(k) participants contributed to this trend: They tended to be less likely to hold employer stock.

PARTICIPANTS’ 401(K) LOAN ACTIVITY ROSE IN 2009: In 2009, 21 percent of all 401(k) participants eligible for loans had a loan outstanding against their 401(k) account, compared with 18 percent at year-end 2008 and year-end 2007. Loans outstanding amounted to 15 percent of the remaining account balance, on average, at year-end 2009, compared with16 percent at year-end 2008. Loan amounts remained in line with the past few years in terms of typical dollar amounts.