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Fidelity 401(k) Survey Shows Hope for Retirement Savings, but Employers Remain Wary

August 13, 2009
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A Fidelity Investments survey shows that more 401(k) participants are increasing their contributions than decreasing them, marking a reversal in employees’ investing patterns. But industry experts say that employers are very wary of encouraging this trend.

According to the August 12 survey, 4.7 percent of plan participants increased their 401(k) contribution rate in the second quarter while 3 percent lowered it.

This is the first time that we saw a reversal in the trend of people who stopped their 401(k) contributions,” said Scott David, president workplace investing at Fidelity.

Although Fidelity says it is seeing employers step up communications around their 401(k) plans as a result of the recent market swing, many experts say they aren’t seeing that at all.

“Clients are using the ‘stay the course’ messaging, but they aren’t doing any additional campaigns about increasing contributions,” said Don Stone, president of Chicago-based Plan Sponsor Advisors, a 401(k) consultant. “They are reluctant to get in and forcefully recommend that employees increase contributions.”

In cases where companies are talking about the importance of saving for retirement, they are often bundling it in with other messages, said Byron Beebe, U.S. retirement market leader for Hewitt Associates.

Companies that freeze their pension plans often talk about the importance of 401(k)s, he said.

“But I have not seen any stand-alone messaging,” Beebe said. “With so many companies having frozen or reduced pay, coming out with communications that employees should save more is a tough message to send.”

Many employers just don’t want to step up education around the importance of 401(k) saving now since so many employees are still suffering financial hardship, said Lori Lucas, an executive vice president and defined-contribution practice leader for San Francisco-based Callan Associates, an institutional investment consultant.

“I was just talking to a plan sponsor in a part of the country where there are lots of foreclosures on homes and he didn’t feel comfortable talking about employees increasing their contributions to their plans when they are struggling to keep their homes,” Lucas said.

An August survey by Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that over the past two months, 36 percent of employers surveyed have seen an increase in hardship withdrawals, 37 percent have seen an increase in loans and 30 percent have seen a decrease in the percentage of pay contributed by participants to their 401(k) or 403(b) plans.

“We are not seeing an increase in contributions by participants,” said Robyn Credico, national director of defined-contribution consulting at Watson Wyatt.

While Watson Wyatt’s findings conflict with those of Fidelity, Credico said she’s seeing more clients increase their communications around the importance of saving for retirement.

“I haven’t heard any clients say they didn’t want to say anything because of the economy,” she said. “In fact, it has been the opposite.”

Some employers that still provide a 401(k) match may also be wary of encouraging 401(k) participation because it will cost them more, Lucas said.

“Increased participation means increased cost in that situation,” she said. “And many plan sponsors may find themselves struggling even to maintain their current level of contribution to the plan.”

—Jessica Marquez

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