Vanguard Reports Rosy Retirement Outlook

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Are Americans on the right track in preparing for retirement? In the broad sense, no, most people aren’t saving enough.

But there are a few bright spots. A number of recent surveys have shown that investors with 401(k) plans have kept their nerve in the past couple of years, resisting the urge to panic and move everything to the sidelines when they suffered losses.

A new survey by the Vanguard Group has similar findings, causing the mutual fund company to proclaim investors in its various defined contribution plans “are well positioned for retirement security.”

That may be overreaching a bit, as Vanguard says the average account held just $69,000 at the end of 2009, far short of what the average person will need to fund a retirement that could last 30 years or more.

Still, Vanguard says the average account balance was up 23% from the end of 2008, thanks to new contributions and the stock market’s rebound. There was little evidence investors panicked after the stock market plunge of 2008. That’s definitely good news.

Vanguard assessed the accounts of 3.2 million participants in 401(k)s and similar defined-contribution plans. Vanguard says its typical plan member is a 45-year-old man saving 9.4% of his income and expecting to work another 20 to 25 years.

Clearly, more people got the message that retirement investing is a long-term process that takes a steady hand. Vanguard found that few account holders made withdrawals or took loans against their accounts, two behaviors that can dramatically undermine returns.

But Steve Utkus, head of Vanguard’s Center for Retirement Research, said that changes in the way companies set up defined-contribution accounts are responsible for many of the study’s most positive findings. Following changes in federal law, more and more companies are automatically enrolling new employees in these plans. Although workers have the right to opt out, experience at Vanguard and elsewhere has shown that participants tend to be relatively inattentive to their accounts, staying in once they start and sticking with their initial investment choices.

A growing number of employers are also using target-date funds as the default investment option for employees who do not make their own investment choices. More participants therefore now have an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, while for many years the typical investor was overly conservative, emphasizing low-yielding money-market and bond funds.

“Inertia was once the foe of 401(k) plan participants, holding them back from participating, putting away sufficient assets, and making optimal choices,” Utkus said in a statement. “Now, inertia may often be a friend of participants, as most continued to participate and contribute regularly, while not trading excessively of altering their long-term allocations.”

Vanguard said about a third of its plan participants use target-date funds, and that half of those have chosen them for themselves rather than being put into them by default. Vanguard sees that as sign that investors are learning about the benefits of this kind of managed asset.

Utkus noted, however, that investors still need to save more. The 9.4% contribution rate includes matches by employers. Without those, the average employee put only 6.8% of income into his or her plan in 2008, compared to 7.3% in the peak year, 2007. Most plans allow the employee to contribute up to 20% of income, and Vanguard says the average employee should contribute at least 12% to 15%, including the employer’s match.

The typical participant, Vanguard said, should also be more careful with asset allocations. That means going heavy on stocks when you are younger and gradually building up bonds and cash as retirement approaches.

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