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Highest-ever average 401(k) balances reported

The average balance in 401(k) accounts managed by Fidelity Investments reached $75,900 at the end of the third quarter 2012, the highest it has been since the company began tracking account data more than 12 years ago.

The ending balance represents an 18% increase over one year prior when it was $64,300, according to Fidelity’s analysis of its 12 million 401(k) accounts in more than 20,200 corporate defined contribution plans.

The analysis showed the following:

• Annual employee contributions grew 7.3% over the past five years to $5,900 at the end of the third quarter 2012, up from $5,500 ending the third quarter 2007.

• Average annual employer contributions rose to $3,420 at the end of the third quarter 2012, up 19% since the third quarter 2007, when it was $2,880.

“It’s encouraging to see companies making a greater contribution to their employees’ 401(k) plans, as we know a healthy employer match not only impacts employees’ retirement savings but also has a positive impact on their behavior, ultimately leading to better outcomes,” said James M. MacDonald, president of Fidelity Workplace Investing, in a media release. Employers could do even more to help boost savings, such as increasing their default automatic enrollment rate and using automatic annual increase programs that gradually raise an employee’s savings rate, he added.

MacDonald pointed out that during the third quarter 2012, new participants who were auto-enrolled had an average deferral rate of 3.7%, while new participants in plans not using auto-enrollment had an average deferral rate of 8.4%. This may be attributed to plans that enroll participants automatically at too low of a default deferral rate, such as the common 3 percent, noted MacDonald. He advises plans to adopt a 6% auto-enrollment default rate with an automatic escalation of 1 percent annually, up to 10%.

Many financial advisers recommend that participants save an average of 10% to 15% of their annual salary to meet their income needs in retirement. “Each single percentage point of added savings can help participants meet that goal,” said MacDonald.

The analysis also revealed that contributions were more balanced than years past:

• New contributions into balanced-asset options, including mixed stock/bond funds and target-date retirement funds, grew to 36% of all contributed dollars at the end of the third quarter 2012, up from 20% at the end of the third quarter 2007.

• New contributions specifically into target-date retirement funds grew to 34%, up from 15% five years prior.

“The report’s findings are consistent with the continuing movement over the past decade toward employers providing retirement benefits via defined contribution 401(k) plans rather than defined benefit pension plans,” said George Braun, a partner in the employee benefits group of law firm Pepper Hamilton, in a comment to SHRM Online. “As employers stopped or cut back on providing pensions for their workers, they put more emphasis on helping employees build 401(k) accounts, including both higher employer contributions and more retirement and investment planning and education for employees.”

©2012 SHRM. All rights reserved.

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