Propelled by strong stock market returns, the average 401(k) account increased 17 percent in 2006, the fourth consecutive year to do so, according to the annual update of the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database. 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 seven-year period from 1999 to 2006 (which included one of the worst bear markets for stocks since the Great Depression) revealed the following:
- The average 401(k) account balance increased at an annual growth rate of 8.7 percent over the period, to $121,202 at year-end 2006.
- The median 401(k) account balance increased at an annual growth rate of 15.1 percent over the period, to $66,650 at year-end 2006.
- The bulk of 401(k) assets are invested in stocks. On average, at year-end 2006, about two-thirds of 401(k) participants' assets are invested in equity securities through equity funds, the equity portion of balanced funds, and company stock. About one-third are in fixed-income securities such as stable value investments and bond and money market funds. These relative shares have changed little over the past 11 years.
- 401(k) participants continue to seek diversification of their investments. The share of 401(k) accounts invested in company stock continues to shrink, falling by 2 percentage points (to 11 percent) in 2006. That continued a steady decline that started in 1999. Recently hired 401(k) participants contribute to this trend: they are less likely to hold employer stock.
- New employees embrace lifestyle/lifecycle funds. Across all age groups, more new or recent hires are investing their 401(k) assets in balanced funds, including lifestyle or lifecycle funds. At year end 2006, 24 percent of the account balances of recently hired participants in their twenties were invested in balanced funds, compared with 19 percent in 2005, and about 7 percent in 1998.
- Participants' 401(k) loan activity is modest. In 2006, 18 percent of all 401(k) participants eligible for loans had taken a loan against their 401(k) account. Most loans tend to be small, amounting, on average, to 12 percent of the remaining account balance.