By Ian Salisbury
February 4, 2016

Did you get a queasy feeling when the Dow suddenly plunged last month? So did the rest of America. Fidelity, the nation’s largest 401(k) provider, said Wednesday that 6 million people reached out with questions about their accounts on Jan. 4, when the market began 2016 with a 300-point drop.

Just how heavily is retirement weighing on Americans’ minds? Well, that’s about 2 million more people than have gone to see Oscar darling “Spotlight,” based on average 2016 ticket prices, and about 5.5 million more than cast votes in Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

In fact, the inquiries at Fidelity’s phone and online help centers on Jan. 4 were the “highest since the downturn” in 2007 and 2008 and remained at elevated levels during much of January, says Fidelity retirement researcher Jeanne Thompson. On a typical day Fidelity receives about 4 million questions from customers with retirement accounts.

The good news, Thompson says, is that by and large investors were better prepared for January’s slide than they were in the wake of the financial crisis. Of course, many of them now have the experience of having lived through that larger, steeper downturn. But the nation’s retirement savings infrastructure has also improved. In particular, target-date funds, which offer investors an age-appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, were just coming into vogue in 2008. Today, they are standard fare in the 401(k) universe; according to Fidelity’s report, two-thirds of account holders have at least some money in a target-date fund.

Investment vehicles that help investors ride out the rough times can make a big difference. The minority of Fidelity investors who bailed out of stocks in late 2008 and didn’t come back have seen returns far lag those who stuck with equities through the downturn. On average, their portfolios have returned about 74% over the past seven years, compared with returns of nearly 150% for those who stayed the course, the report noted.

Of course, checking their account balances isn’t the only way anxious Americans looked to secure their retirement last month. They also bought 635 million Powerball tickets. The time on the phone with Fidelity was probably better spent.

 

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