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Investing Habits Held Steady in 2008: Hewitt

Few investors changed their saving or investing habits in 2008, Hewitt Associates reports, citing data from 2.7 million participants. However, equity fund allocations reached record lows.

Last year, only 11% of 401(k) participants broke even or saw modest gains. Forty-four percent lost 30% or more of their 401(k) savings, which dropped an average 28% from $79,600 at the end of 2007 to $57,200 at the end of last year.

Nonetheless, the 74% who contributed to their 401(k) plan held steady from the year before, and the contribution rate fell only modestly to 7.4%, down from 7.7% in 2007. A mere 5% stopped contributing to their 401(k) plan altogether in 2008.

And the number of people who made at least one trade in their 401(k) account edged up only slightly to 19.6% in 2008, versus 18.7% in 2007.

"Whether it's faith in the 401(k) system, inertia or both, most employees continued to save for retirement amid the tightening economy," said Pamela Hess, director of retirement research at Hewitt.

But Hess urged investors to become more proactive: "Because the losses workers have sustained are so extraordinary, they'll need to be much more proactive about saving to build their nest egg back up to pre-recession levels. Now, more than ever, workers should make sure they're investing in the right mix of funds, rebalancing periodically and getting financial help and advice to make sure they're taking all the right steps to meet their long-term goals."

This is notable, since investors' average equity exposure is currently at 59%, a record low since Hewitt began tracking the data in 1997.

"It's understandable that some employees are uneasy about the declining value of their 401(k) accounts," Hess said. "However, workers who impulsively transfer assets to more conservative funds during market slumps may hurt their ability to save enough for retirement since most are unlikely to reallocate their investments when the market rebounds."

Fidelity released a similar report about investing habits in the first quarter, which showed a full 97% of investors continued to make contributions, which averaged $1,700, only slightly down from the average $1,860 invested in the first quarter of 2008. Combined with employers' contributions, the average total amount invested in 401(k)s in the first quarter was actually much higher, $2,780, only slightly down from $3,080 a year prior.

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