September 26, 2012

Ownership of 401(k) Plans Rise, While IRAs Fall

Good news and bad in EBRI’s latest retirement participation report

Call it even. In the financial services industry’s quest to help secure successful retirements on behalf of their clients, a new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) offers hope—and frustration. Although fewer American families are participating in a retirement plan at work, more of those with a plan are in a 401(k). At the same time, ownership of individual retirement accounts is falling, according the report.

Analyzing the four-year period from 2007 through 2010, EBRI finds that the share of American families with a member in any employment-based retirement plan increased steadily from 38.8% in 1992 to 40.6% in 2007, before declining in 2010 to 37.9%.

Ownership of 401(k)-type plans among families participating in a retirement plan more than doubled from 31.6% in 1992 to 79.5% in 2007, and increased again in 2010 to 82.1%.

However, the percentage of families owning an IRA or Keogh retirement plan (for the self-employed) declined from 30.6% in 2007 to 28% in 2010.

EBRI also found that retirement plan assets account for a growing majority of most Americans’ financial wealth, outside the value of their home. The median percentage of total financial assets from retirement plans increased from 2007 to 2010, and accounted for a clear majority of these assets:

  • Defined contribution plan balances accounted for 58.1% of families’ total financial assets in 2007, and that share grew to 61.4% in 2010.
  • Defined contribution and/or IRA/Keogh balances increased their share as well, from 64.1% of total family financial assets in 2007 to 65.7% in 2010. Across all demographic groups, these assets account for a very large share of total financial assets for those who own these accounts.

However, the EBRI report notes that the most recent data, along with other EBRI research, indicate that many people are unlikely to afford a comfortable retirement.

“Americans lost a tremendous amount of wealth between 2007 and 2010, and the percentage of families that participated in an employment-based retirement plan and/or owned an IRA decreased as well,” Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associated and author of the report, said in a statement.

However, he added, the percentage of family heads that were eligible to participate in a defined contribution plan and actually did so remained virtually unchanged during this time. Therefore, despite all the bad news that resulted from this period, one positive factor should be noted: “Those eligible to participate in a retirement plan continued to participate—which may help change the likelihood of a lower retirement standard for many Americans,” Copeland added. 

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