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Calls from employees in 401(k) plans flooded benefit plan administration centers last week amid the stock market's volatility, but few employees are moving their savings out of equities and into safer investments.
Benefit administration centers said call volumes early last week were double and in some cases triple the volumes that would be normal at this time of year.
The vast majority of calls were from plan participants checking account balances through voice response systems or seeking other information about their accounts or investment options.
"There was a tremendous surge of calls, but very few people actually made transactions," said John McGlone, director of participant services at Buck Consultants Inc. in Secaucus, N.J.
For example, at The Principal Financial Group, the nation's largest 401(k) plan administrator, less than 0.1% of plan participants moved funds from one type of investment to another.
"We did not see a hysteria of participants piling out of equities," said George Tracy, director of savings plan operations with Wellspring Resources L.L.C., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based benefit outsourcing venture of Watson Wyatt Worldwide and State Street Bank.
Other plan administrators reported a slightly higher, though still a very small level of transactions.
Among 40 major 401(k) plans that Hewitt Associates L.L.C. administers, roughly one-fifth of 1% of plan assets were moved early last week.
At Kemper Insurance Cos., about 1% of its employees' 401(k) plan assets changed accounts. "It was more than a usual day but not dramatically so," said Sally Bullen, Kemper's vp of human resources in Long Grove, Ill.
Just as striking as the relatively small amount of money transferred-amid the tremendous market volatility-was how few plan participants moved funds out of equities.
While there was a shift out of equities Monday morning and into more secure investments, such as money market, guaranteed investment contacts and bond funds, the tide began to turn Monday afternoon in favor of equities.
By the time 401(k) plan transfer activity returned to normal levels on Wednesday, employees' investments in equity funds was about the same as when the week began.
"The net effect was virtually a wash," said Tom Flint, Hewitt Associates' head of participant services in Lincolnshire, Ill.
Asset transfers in and out of equities was even or very close to even, said a spokeswoman for TIAA-CREF, the largest provider of 403(b) plans-non-profit organizations' equivalent to 401(k) plans-to educational institutions.
Even as the market was plunging Monday, plan participants remained calm.
"It was basically a non-event," said Robert Cornett, vp-human resources at UNUM Corp. in Portland, Maine. "We expected and anticipated calls, but they never came," Mr. Cornett added.
Far from reacting with hysteria, some employees instead saw Monday's stock market crash as an opportunity to invest in equities at their lower prices.
"One employee in his 50s told me he wished he had more money to invest in equities," said Douglas Terp, director of personnel at Waterville, Maine-based Colby College, which offers a 403(b) plan.
In fact, some savvy 401(k) plan participants tried to shift money into equities after the market shut down Monday afternoon at 3: 30, a half-hour before the normal market close, thinking they could buy in at the low.
That forced many plan administrators to alert plan participants-through thousands of calls the following day-that any transaction conducted after the market closed Monday would not be made until Tuesday's closing.
The relative calm and low trading activity of 401(k) plan participants contrasts sharply with the last big market crash a decade ago.
"There was a tremendous reaction of people moving out of equities (in 1987). We did not see that this time around," said Mr. McGlone of Buck Consultants.
"I was heartened and gratified by the showing that it will take a fair amount to rattle 401(k) participants," said James Klein, a principal with Towers Perrin in New York.
That change in employee behavior, plan administrators and employers say, is the result of campaigns to educate employees that savings plan investments should be held for long-term returns, and that decisions on where to invest funds should not be based on short-term events.
"We have spent a lot of time educating participants about the way the investment markets work," said Jim Sager, associate director of pension investment services with The Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa.
"We have pointed out that success in investments requires a long-term point of view. We've encouraged people to disregard short-term changes and focus on the long term," Mr. Sager added.
"Employees are understanding long-term trends and are not spending so much time thinking about short-term events," said Hewitt's Mr. Flint.
Still, some note that the staying power of 401(k) plan participants in equities and the effectiveness of employers' investment educational campaigns may not have yet received a true test.
"Today's 401(k) plan participant has yet to experience a true bear market when there is a steady, sickening slide. . .eating away at people's ability to stick" with their investments, said Mr. Sager.
Because of that potential, plan sponsors need to do an even better job of educating participants that stocks don't always go up and that there can be long periods of time when equities go-and stay-down, Mr. Sager said.
But what did receive a major test were the voice response and call center systems that service providers have established in the last few years to handle the administration of 401(k) plans and other employee benefit plans.
Call volumes during the peak times-Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning-were as much as four times higher than normal.
While processing calls made things hectic, "It was nothing unmanageable," said Cindy Dybas, director of client servicing at Towers Perrin's benefit outsourcing center in Philadelphia.
"We had no complaints from clients that employees could not get through," said Margaret-Ann Cole, a principal with The Kwasha Lipton Group in Fort Lee, N.J.
What made the difference, according to Ms. Dybas and other service center executives, has been the revolution in technology over the past few years that allows employees to conduct transactions-such as checking account balances and transferring savings plan funds from one investment option to another-by pressing a few digits on a Touch-Tone phone.
In fact, service center staffers said anywhere between 70% and 90% of 401(k) plan-related calls last week were handled through voice response systems.
For administration centers, the timing of last week's market volatility also was fortuitous. Many had extra staff on board because late October is busier than normal because of the high number of clients that have open enrollment periods for health care plans at this time of year.
Still, Monday turned out to be
a "triple witching" day for administration centers due to open enrollment periods, the frenzied activity on Wall Street and the above-average volume of calls that centers always receive on Mondays, said Bob Byrne, managing principal at The Kwasha Lipton Group.