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401(k) participants in need of help

Faced with growing account balances, 401(k) plan participants are increasingly demanding more help making retirement plan decisions, according to several industry experts.

According to The Spectrem Group, a research company based in San Francisco, the average 401(k) account balance has grown to nearly $35,000, double what it was in 1990. And that has plan participants all over the country -- there are 30 million of them today -- clamoring for some form of help short of advice.

"With this much at stake, participants are seriously examining their choices," said Jeffrey Close of Spectrem. "It's certainly a confusing time for novice investors."

Close's remarks were made during a panel discussion last week on trends in the retirement industry presented to registered investment advisers and other financial professionals and sponsored by the Fidelity Advisor Institute. The meeting was broadcast live via satellite to 50 sites across the country.

Defined contribution participants are seeking more help to make decisions regarding their retirement savings also because there are more choices than ever before and more access to account information.

Sixty-three percent of plan sponsors are able to offer multiple fund families in their 401(k) plans, according to Spectrem. That, of course, makes it more difficult for participants to make choices.

Also, 59 percent of the large company sponsors offered employees daily valuation of their 401(k) plans. Internet access is also on the rise, meaning participants are receiving more information to assess. Close also notes that investing has become "an American pastime."

However, Close says, the Spectrem Group has found that daily valuation does not cause participants to panic when the market is volatile, as it is now.

"People as a whole do not make many changes to their 401(k) plans," Close said.

Close says participants are looking for more seminars and workshops or allocation tools which can help them make sound decisions about their retirement. That means those who assemble plans for plan sponsors, have to provide as much of these aids as possible to them.

"We need to give them the tools to make the decisions they have to make," Close said.

Some plan sponsors face communication problems of an entirely different nature. The Kraematon Group, a financial planning services company in Wellesley, Mass., that sells 401(k) plans, works with many plan sponsors in California that have Spanish-speaking employees, said Richard Sotell of The Kraematon Group, who was on the Fidelity Institute panel. Not only is language a barrier to effective communication about retirement plans, but also culture.