Retirement Savers Show Confidence in Current 401(k) Model

A recent ICI survey found that a majority of Americans dislike the idea of government-controlled investment options and are confident in their ability to make their own asset management decisions.

By DJ Shaw


A recent study published by the Investment Company Institute indicates that investors broadly value the disciplined approach and long-term investment opportunities that 401(k) plans represent while they are  largely opposed to changing the tax treatment of retirement accounts.

In its newly published 14th iteration, the American Views on Defined Contribution Plan Savings study shows that a majority of respondents affirmed a preference for control of their retirement accounts. They widely opposed proposals to require a portion of retirement accounts to be converted into a fair contract promising them income for life from either the government or an insurance company.

There is a range of engagement among 401(k) participants and most plans are designed to cater to that full range, says Sarah Holden, ICI retirement and investor research senior director. The typical 401(k) plan has an average of more than 20 investment options, which especially makes do-it-yourself investors happy.

On the other hand, there are people who look at those options and feel overwhelmed and unsure what to do, Holden says. Typically, plans will offer those savers a premixed target-date fund option. Holder says well-constructed plans seek to keep the choice of where to invest available, but they also include default guardrails to help novice or nervous investors.

The study suggests that 75% of Americans have a favorable impression of 401(k) and similar retirement plan accounts—similar to the figures reported in the previous two editions of the research. Among those who expressed an opinion, 43% say that they have a “very favorable” impression of such accounts.

Similar to previous year results, the study shows that nine out of 10 DC-owning individuals agree that these plans help them think about the long term and made it easier to save. Nearly five out of 10 (45%) DC plan holders indicate that they probably would not be saving for retirement if it were not for their DC plan. Additionally, saving paycheck-by-paycheck made eight out of 10 DC-owning individuals surveyed feel less worried about the short-term performance of their investments.

Saving from each paycheck into a retirement plan helps workers to continue investing in down markets, Holden says. It also helps them achieve dollar-cost averaging with their investments and benefit when stock and bond markets recover.

When respondents were asked whether “knowing that I’m saving from every paycheck makes me less worried about the short-term performance of my investments,” the study shows that 80% of DC-owning individuals agree.

The number ranged from 73% of DC-owning individuals with household incomes of less than $30,000 to 84% of DC-owning individuals with household incomes of $100,000 or more. Age also has an effect, with 84% of DC-owning individuals younger than age 35 saying the same, compared with 75% of those aged 35 to 49.

The study suggests that a sizeable majority of Americans disagree with proposals to remove or reduce tax incentives for retirement savings, with strong preference for preserving retirement account features and flexibility.

Other results show 88% disagree that the government should take away the tax advantages of DC accounts, and 89% disagree with reducing the amount that individuals can contribute to DC accounts, the ICI says. When asked about the idea of not allowing individuals to make investment decisions in their DC accounts, 87% disagree. Similarly, more than eight in 10 disagree with investing all retirement accounts in an investment option selected by a government-appointed board of experts.

The study found that 90% of Americans agree that retirees should be able to make their own decisions about how to manage their retirement assets and income, and about eight out of 10 disagree that retirees should be required to trade a portion of their retirement accounts for a fair annuity contract promising income for life.

The survey also asked respondents to indicate their confidence in the ability of the 401(k) system to help individuals meet their retirement goals. The result show that 78% of Americans indicate they are either “somewhat” or “very” confident that 401(k) and other employer-sponsored retirement plan accounts can help people meet their retirement goals—similar to the confidence levels expressed in prior years.

“I think the thing that really surprises me consistently over time about retirement savers is their commitment to the process,” Holden says. “I mean, you think about retirement, and it is so far off for many people. It’s a long-term goal, and there are so many short-term things that could really trip you up and get in the way. Yet, in this survey, we see that they understand that it’s a long-term process and they are sticking to it. They have confidence in these plans.”

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