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Amid last week's stock market volatility, most 401(k) plan participants kept their cool.
Call volumes early last week jumped anywhere from a third more to twice as much as what would be normal at this time of the year, benefit administration centers said.
But most calls were from plan participants checking account balances through voice response systems or seeking other information about their accounts or investment options in light of the volatility.
"Call volume went up significantly, but participants were not looking to make changes. A lot of people wanted to know their account balances and not move funds from one account to another," said Margaret-Ann Cole, a principal at PwC Kwasha in Fort Lee, N.J.
"Most of the inquiries were from people finding out how much was in their account. There was little activity going on," said John McGlone, director of participant services at Buck Consultants Inc. in Secaucus, N.J.
Mirroring its experience of Oct. 27, 1997, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell a record 554 points, The Principal Financial Group said roughly 0.1% of plan participants moved funds from one type of investment to another.
"Call volume went up and transaction volume went up, but that increase was from a very low base," said Jim Sager, The Principal's director of pension investment services in Des Moines, Iowa.
At Kemper Insurance Cos., just over 60 plan participants -- out of 10,000 -- moved funds in and out of different investment options each day between Aug. 27 and Sept. 2.
While that is a significant increase from a typical day when an average of 15 people move money between investment options, that still is a tiny percentage compared to total plan participants, said Sally Bullen, Kemper's vp of human resources in Long Grove, Ill.
A spokesman for UNUM Corp., a disability insurer in Portland, Maine, said: "Our employees don't seem to have jumped one way or another. There was no real change in activity."
"The vast majority of our participants are riding this out, just as they did last October," said a spokeswoman for New York-based TIAA-CREF, the largest provider of 403(b) plans, which are non-profit organizations' equivalent of 401(k) plans.
Calls and transactions peaked Monday afternoon and then began to settle down.
At Principal's benefit administration centers, call volume Monday was more than 60% over normal, while on Tuesday call volume was 35% higher than normal.
By Wednesday, though, call volume was pretty close to normal. "Whatever excitement there was died down quickly," Mr. Sager said.
At Hewitt Associates L.L.C.'s benefit administration centers, calls going to voice response systems were 35% higher than normal on Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday settled back to normal levels.
The relative low level of transaction activity, administration center executives say, is due in large part to employee understanding that 401(k) plan investments are long term and that they shouldn't try to outguess the market by constantly moving funds from one investment to another.
"The majority of participants understand that the best strategy is to ride out market swings," said George Tracy, director of savings plan operations with Wellspring Resources L.L.C., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based benefits outsourcing venture of State Street Bank.
"On average, plan participants are a lot smarter than a few years ago. They panic much less frequently, though there will be some of that," said Cindy Dybas, director of benefit administration services operations at Towers Perrin's benefit outsourcing center in Philadelphia.
For some plan participants, though, investment education may have a ways to go. One plan participant said to a call center representative: " 'How could I lose money? This is my 401(k) plan.' Clearly more needs to be done so participants understand that their investments are connected to the market," said Tom Flint, head of participant services at Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill.
Plan participant behavior in one way, though, did parallel what investors overall were doing, some administration center executives said. On Monday, when the Dow Jones skidded 512 points, those 401(k) plan participants that moved money typically shifted those funds out of equities and into fixed-income investment vehicles. On Tuesday, when the Dow Jones climbed 288 points, the movement was back into equities, and on Wednesday, when the Dow fell 45 points, there was a slight movement back into fixed-income funds.
"Definitely, more money flowed into fixed-income funds," Hewitt's Mr. Flint said.
Others, though, said that toward the end of the week, about as much flowed into equities as flowed out.
"It was very much of a wash," said Buck's Mr. McGlone, adding, though, that there was a clear trend of participants moving money out of international equities funds, an investment behavior that may have started before last week's extraordinary market volatility.
The big market swing once again showed how automation has changed the face of benefit transactions. Roughly 75% to 80% of 401(k) plan transactions now are handled through voice response systems, which have become a near universal part of 401(k) plans.
"Participants have become very comfortable with that technology and know what information they can get through it," Mr. McGlone said.