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 five-year period from 2003 to 2008 (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 24.3 percent in 2008.
- The average 401(k) account balance moved up and down with stock market performance, but over the entire five-year time period increased at an average annual growth rate of 7.2 percent, attaining $86,513 at year-end 2008.
- The median (mid-point) 401(k) account balance increased at an average annual growth rate of 11.4 percent over the 2003–2008 period to $43,700 at year-end 2008.
THE BULK OF 401(K) ASSETS CONTINUED TO BE INVESTED IN STOCKS. On average, at year-end 2008, 56 percent of 401(k) participants’ assets were invested in equity securities through equity funds, the equity portion of balanced funds, and company stock. Forty-one percent was in fixed-income securities such as stable-value investments and bond and money market funds.
THREE-QUARTERS OF 401(K) PLANS INCLUDED LIFECYCLE FUNDS IN THEIR INVESTMENT LINEUP AT YEAR-END 2008. At year-end 2008, nearly 7 percent of the assets in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database were invested in lifecycle funds and 31 percent of 401(k) participants held lifecycle funds. Also known as “target-date” funds, they are designed to simplify investing and automate account rebalancing.
NEW EMPLOYEES CONTINUED TO USE BALANCED FUNDS, INCLUDING LIFECYCLE FUNDS. Across all age groups, more new or recent hires invested their 401(k) assets in balanced funds, including lifecycle funds. At year-end 2008, 36 percent of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in balanced funds, compared with 28 percent in 2007, and about 7 percent in 1998. At year-end 2008, almost 23 percent of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in lifecycle funds, compared with almost 19 percent at year-end 2007.
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 nearly 1 percentage point (to 9.7 percent) in 2008. That continued a steady decline that started in 1999. Recently hired 401(k) participants contributed to this trend: they were less likely to hold employer stock.
PARTICIPANTS’ 401(K) LOAN ACTIVITY WAS STABLE. In 2008, 18 percent of all 401(k) participants eligible for loans had a loan outstanding against their 401(k) account, the same percentage as at year-end 2007 and year-end 2006. Loans outstanding amounted to 16 percent of the remaining account balance, on average, at year-end 2008; this is similar to the year-end 2002 level.