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Portfolio > Economy & Markets > Stocks

Inertia behind 401(k) stability

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Tomorrow is National 401(k) Day, an effort from The Profit Sharing/401k Council of America to highlight the importance of employer-sponsored profit sharing and 401(k) plans. An annual event, National 401(k) Day is the first Friday after Labor Day (because retirement follows work. Isn’t that cute?).

401(k)s have remained relatively stable through the recession, but, according to the Wall Street Journal, that may just be a result of investor inertia. When forced with a difficult decision, investors will look for rules of thumb to guide them. “If you like stocks, why not put 100% of your money into them? If you don’t, then why not set a zero allocation to stocks? And once you pick a nice round number, why change it?” the paper asks ironically.

Of nearly three million 401(k) participants at Vanguard, 16 percent were 100 percent invested in stocks at the end of 2008, down from 17 percent in 2007. At Fidelity, which serves about 11.2 million participants, 15 percent of investors had all their money in stocks. Automatic contributions make it even easier for investors to distance themselves from managing their 401(k) accounts.

The Journal warns against the buy-and-hold – and hold-and-hold – strategy. “It worked well in the 1980s and 1990s, and again over the past six months as the market partially rebounded from its collapse. For the past decade as a whole, it hasn’t worked well. So investors should be patient, but not catatonic; they should rebalance annually to sell some of what has gone up and buy some of what has gone down.”


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