Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Staying" Power

When we moved into our last home―an old house, and one in which the prior family had lived for quite some time―we found a set of markings on a doorframe.  Markings that appeared to indicate the height―and growth patterns over time―of the children of the former owners.  We took note of this at the time, but those markings didn’t last long after we moved in.  After all, while our kids were still growing, and they were now going to live in the same house, there was little point in assessing their progress against that of the former residents.

We’ve noted before the shortcomings of metrics such as an “average” 401(k) balance (see “Above” Average, online here ), which generally aggregate the balances of participants in widely different circumstances of age and tenure―everything from those just entering the workforce who have relatively negligible 401(k) balances with those who may have been saving for decades.  While these averages can, over time, provide a sense of the general direction in which things are moving, they’re not generally a very accurate barometer when it comes to assessing actual retirement accumulations. That’s one reason why the annual updates of the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database also report average balances by age and tenure.

That said, people change jobs, employers change 401(k) providers, and so, even in a repository as comprehensive and long-standing as the 24-million-participant EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, those “averages,” of necessity, include the experience of different individuals over time.  In order to accurately assess the impact of participation in 401(k) plans over time, and to understand how 401(k) plan participants have fared over an extended period, it is important to analyze a group of consistent participants―a longitudinal sample.

A recent EBRI Issue Brief (jointly published with the Investment Company Institute), “401(k) Participants in the Wake of the Financial Crisis: Changes in Account Balances, 2007–2011,” did just that. Drawing on the actual activity of 8.6 million participant accounts, it found that at year-end 2011, the average 401(k) account balance of the consistent group of participants during 2007‒2011 was $94,482, or 60 percent larger than the average account balance of $58,991 among participants in the entire EBRI/ICI 401(k) database. The median (mid-point) 401(k) account balance among the consistent participants was $42,082 at year-end 2011, about two-and-a-half times the median account balance of $16,649 of participants in the entire EBRI/ICI 401(k) database.

Now, in any given year the change in a participant’s account balance is the sum of several factors: new contributions; total investment return on account balances; and withdrawals, borrowing, and loan repayments.  The influence of each of those factors on individual account balances varied according to individual circumstances; participants who were younger or had fewer years of tenure experienced the largest percentage increases in average account balance between year-end 2007 and year-end 2011, and, for those younger, smaller account balance participants, contributions were responsible for a significant percentage of the growth in their account balances (consistent participants in their 20s saw their accounts nearly triple between 2007 and 2011).  Older participants experienced smaller percentage gains, and most of that was from investment returns.  Moreover, some of those balances were doubtless affected by the initiation of retirement-related withdrawals.

Still, and as the EBRI Issue Brief outlines, the trends in the consistent group’s account balances highlight the accumulation effect―the staying power―of ongoing 401(k) participation.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

“401(k) Participants in the Wake of the Financial Crisis: Changes in Account Balances, 2007–2011” is available online here.

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