In the fourth quarter of last year, 81% of employees either started or increased the money they put towards their 401(k), while 19% either stopped or decreased their contributions. The study measures the activity of more than 2.5 million employees who are using the firm’s plans.
That is the strongest positive and negative ratio the has seen since the firm started the report in 2009, according to Kevin Crain, head of Institutional Retirement & Benefit Services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. And the results mark a “pretty dramatic move,” Crain said, as the U.S. was facing both a presidential election and a looming fiscal cliff debate.
Showing further confidence, more than 90% of 401(k) participants who had automatically enrolled were still active in their plans as of the end of last year. At the same time, new 401(k) loan issuance transactions fell about 5% and 401(k) hardship and in service withdrawals dipped almost 8% compared to last year.
“People have kind of retrenched a little bit and said, ‘Wow, I should really be saving money,’” Crain said of the current economy. “The markets helped because it’s not just saving money, but [investors] have seen appreciation on their money.”
New efforts from both plan sponsors and financial advisors alike have encouraged those positive savings actions by 401(k) participants. That includes features like automatic enrollment for employees into their retirement plan, automatic increase after they become participants and efforts to promote education about the plans.
More than 52% of plan sponsors now use automatic enrollment and automatic increase as of January, marking a 17% uptick in the use of that increase feature from last year. Meanwhile, the automatic increase feature saw a 60% jump in default contribution rates of 6% or more.
And financial professionals and advisors had a direct hand in helping to boost the success of those plans. Employers who hosted in-person meetings between their employees and financial experts reported a 67% success rate in increasing contributions and enrollments. That came after employers increased their requests for those kinds of meetings by 30% last year, while employee participation in those events rose by 22%.
“It is right to the DNA of the financial advisor,” Crain said of the educational efforts. “People take the most aggressive action when you actually sit down in person and talk to them.”