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Market volatility hit balances in retirement accounts

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Volatility was not the friend of 401(k)s or IRAs in the third quarter.

According to a Fidelity Investments analysis of Q3 401(k) and IRA savings, heavy August volatility in particular, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dropped over 1,500 points, caused retirement account balances to drop.

At one point on the 24th, the DJIA shed over 1,000 points in early trading. It recouped some, and by the end of the day had recorded a 588-point decline.

The average 401(k) balance lost ground, falling from Q2’s $91,100 to $84,400 at the end of Q3. It also fell year over year, from $89,100 a year ago.

IRA balances fell as well. At the end of Q3 they were down year over year from $92,100 to $88,700 at the end of Q3. At the end of Q2 of this year, they had averaged $96,300.

Losses were despite an increase in contributions from last year for 401(k)s—from 8.0 percent in 2014 to 8.2 percent this year—and remaining nearly constant for IRAs, coming in just $10 under last year’s Q3 $1,270 average at $1,260 in Q3 of 2015.

People looked for help in record numbers as volatility raged, seeking guidance both online and on the phone.

Fidelity managed over 16 million online inquiries from IRA and 401(k) investors from August 23–29.

On the day of the big drop, August 24, Fidelity received over 160,000 phone calls from IRA and 401(k) investors; it was one of the firm’s busiest days on record.

The firm said that customers were looking for help on a range of topics, including how to manage their investments during periods of volatility, the pitfalls of converting to “all cash” and the possible reasons behind recent market drops.

Most participants didn’t make any panic moves; just 4.9 percent of 401(k) accountholders changed their asset allocation during Q3, and 16 percent of IRA customers did so.