Center for Research on Defined Contribution Plans

This program was initiated in 1994 in response to EBRI Members’ increasing interest in the impact of sponsor and/or provider educational efforts on the investment behavior of participants in participant-directed defined contribution plans. The initial program objective has been expanded to include aspects of interest in defined contribution plans, such as participant behavior in terms of asset allocation, contribution levels and participation, and the response to participant behavior by plan sponsors and service providers. The first phase of the program yielded four Issue Briefs and a report to the Department of Labor and the Securities and Exchange Commission by 1996.

The primary emphasis of the second phase of the program is the creation of a multi-source longitudinal database that provides information on participant-level decisions with respect to participation, contributions, loans, and asset allocation. EBRI Member firms, policymakers, and the media find this information to be extremely important. In an attempt to enhance data-collection efforts, EBRI and the Investment Company Institute (ICI) joined forces to develop the most comprehensive database on 401(k) plan participants yet assembled. EBRI sponsors and ICI members (serving as plan record keepers and administrators) are the source of participant data, which include demographic, contribution, asset allocation, and loan and withdrawal activity information.

The October 2009 EBRI Issue Brief examined the 2008 account balances, asset allocation, and loan behavior of 24 million 401(k) plan participants holding more than $1.09 trillion in assets as of Dec. 31, 2007, drawn from the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project.

The unique nature of this database proved to be extremely useful during the Enron-related congressional hearings in February 2002. EBRI was asked to testify at four different hearings and was able to use the database to provide the percentage of plans, participants, and assets with company stock, as well as the only analysis of the percentage of participants who would be impacted by percentage caps on company stock. This analysis was used in the Feb. 28, 2005, Report of the Department of the Treasury on Employer Stock in 401(k) Plans.

The November 2002 Issue Brief uses the EBRI/ICI 401(k) Accumulation Projection Model to analyze whether 401(k) accumulations are expected to generate significant income for future retirees. This model uses 401(k) participant behavior observed in the EBRI/ICI Participant-Directed Retirement Plan Data Collection Project to project what 401(k) participants can expect from their 401(k) accumulations at retirement. Unlike household survey information, which can suffer from difficulties with participant recall, the EBRI/ICI data used to construct the 401(k) plan behaviors in the model are based on administrative records for a very large cross-section (millions) of 401(k) participants. Using salary, contribution, account balance, asset allocation, loan balance, and withdrawal information for each participant drawn from the year-end 2000 EBRI/ICI database, 401(k) accumulations at the age of 65 are estimated for each participant. These accumulations are then converted into a replacement rate. In order to estimate replacement rates at retirement, several items must be tracked for each 401(k) participant over time. A participant’s income, contribution activity, loan and withdrawal activity, asset allocation changes, and investment returns must be tracked from year-end 2000 until the participant retires. For simplicity, it is currently assumed that all individuals retire at age 65; however, we will attempt to relax this assumption in future work. As participants age, they may change jobs, and with job change, they may transfer account balances into rollover IRAs or cash out the balance accumulated at the previous employer. All of these behaviors are accounted for in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) Accumulation Projection Model.

The EBRI/ICI 401(k) Accumulation Projection Model was updated to include several new scenarios, and the results were included in the May 2005 Issue Brief and presented at the May 2005 EBRI-ERF policy forum. Baseline scenarios were presented as well as sensitivity analysis for catch-up contributions and IRA contribution activity for years the employees are not covered by 401(k) plans. Perhaps the most important contribution of the new analysis was the demonstration of the significant influence of automatic enrollment upon 401(k) accumulations, especially for the lower-income participants.

The same model was combined with information from the 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey to analyze the potential impact of automatic escalation of employee contributions under the PPA safe harbor. The results were published in the September 2007 EBRI Notes and demonstrated a significant impact for employees, especially those in the lowest-income quartile.

A new simulation model was constructed for the May 2008 policy forum and formed the basis for the June 2008 Issue Brief. This model was updated for the joint DOL/SEC Hearing: Target Date Fund Public Hearing on June 18, 2009.

Finally, the April 2010 Issue Brief uses actual plan-specific data from sponsors that have converted from traditional types of 401(k) plans to auto-enrollment from 2005 (the year prior to the enactment of PPA) to 2009, inclusive. Previous EBRI research had demonstrated the propensity of defined benefit plan sponsors that have either recently frozen their defined benefit plan or closed it to new employees, or planned to do so soon after the enactment of PPA in 2006, to adopt automatic-enrollment provisions in their 401(k) plans. However, until recently there was little, if any, direct empirical evidence of whether the overall employer contribution rates to auto-enrollment plans would be more or less generous than their voluntary-enrollment counterparts.

A list of papers and projects related to the Center for Research on Defined Contribution Programs can be found below.

EBRI Issue Briefs

EBRI Notes


  • September 17, 2009—Testimony by EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei before the Department of Labor Advisory Council on Employee Welfare and Pension Benefit Plans, on “An Evaluation of the Adequacy and Structure of Current U.S. Voluntary Retirement Plans, With Special Emphasis on 401(k) Plans” (T-162).
  • June 18, 2009—Testimony by Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director, before the joint DOL/SEC Hearing, “Target Date Fund Public Hearing, How Would Target-Date Funds Likely Impact Future 401(k) Accumulations?” (T-160).
  • October 7, 2008—Testimony by Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director, before the House Education and Labor Committee, at a hearing on “The Impact of the Financial Crisis on Workers’ Retirement Security” (T-156).


  • Falling Stocks: What Will Happen to Retirees' Incomes? The Worker Perspective, “The Economic Crisis of 2008: What Will Happen to Retirees’ Incomes?” Thirty-first Annual APPAM Research Conference, November 6, 2009.
  • What Will Happen to Retirement Income for 401(k) Participants After the Market Decline? ISCEBS Annual Symposium, August 2009.
  • Decline in defined benefit plans—Impact on future retirement income and modifications in defined contribution plans to improve retirement income security, Presentation for the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board Retirement and Savings Working Group, May 20, 2009.
  • Economic Shift: Diagnosing a Volatile Economy’s Impact on Recent Retirees’ Decisions, and Monitoring the Future of Baby Boomer Retirement Income, Managing Retirement Income Conference, February 10, 2009.
  • What Is Left of Our Retirement Assets? Urban Institute conference, February 3, 2009.
  • Whither Retirement? The ERISA Industry Committee Board & Membership Meeting, October 29, 2009.
  • No More Retirement? Pensions, Social Security and the Aging Workforce,
    Wharton Research Advisory Group, November 13, 2008.
  • Completing the Retirement Equation: Making Savings Last a Lifetime, “How are retirees managing today and the effect pension trends will have on future retirees,” AARP, Washington, DC, May 14, 2008.
  • Defined Contribution Plans in a Post-PPA Environment, “The Impact of PPA on Retirement Income for 401(k) Participants,” Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington, DC, May 8, 2008.
  • Defined Contribution Investment Menu Design, “Fiduciary, Governance and Financial Considerations,” TIAA/CREF Institute, New York, NY, September 7, 2007.
  • Potential Impact of Social Security Reform on Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans and Its Likely Consequences for Retirees, Ford Foundation, New York, NY, July 11, 2007.
  • Retirement Program Changes After PPA and New Accounting Rules, Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington, DC, May 3, 2007.
  • Boomertirement Industry Summit, The Looming Baby Boomer Retirement Crisis, Million Dollar Roundtable, New York, NY, April 24, 2007.
  • Highlights from the 18th Annual Retirement Confidence Survey, Pacific Life, June 13, 2008.
  • Results of the 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey, for Prudential Retirement’s Client Advisory Board, March 29, 2007.
  • Results of the 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey, for the Spring 2007 Partners Meeting of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC) April 18, 2007.
  • How Are 401(k) Investors Doing at Retirement Saving and Security? SVIA Spring Seminar April 17, 2007.
  • PPA: Implications for plan sponsors and other stakeholders, Penjerdel, June 10, 2007.

Other Publications

  • VanDerhei, Jack. “An Evaluation of the Adequacy and Structure of Current U.S. Voluntary Retirement Plans, With Special Emphasis on 401(k) Plans,” Benefits Quarterly, Third Quarter 2010.
  • Holden, Sarah, and Jack VanDerhei. “Recent Trends in 401(k) Participants’ Asset Allocations,” Journal of Financial Services Professionals, 2010.
  • VanDerhei, Jack. “What Will Happen to Retirement Income for 401(k) Participants After the Market Decline?” Journal of Aging and Social Policy, forthcoming.
  • VanDerhei, Jack. “The Pension Protection Act and 401(k)s,” Wall Street Journal, 2008.
  • Holden, Sarah, and Jack VanDerhei. In David Blitzstein, Olivia S. Mitchell, and Stephen P. Utkus (ed.), The Role of 401(k) Accumulations in Future Retirement Income in Restructuring Retirement Risks. Oxford University Press Inc., New York, NY, 2007 (pp. 37–51).