The Great Bull Market of the 1990s made 401(k) investors feeling bolder - and a lot better off.
While financial experts once were concerned that investors were too cautious investing their retirement money, an extensive new study of 401(k) assets shows that investors have steadily taken a more aggressive approach to building a nest egg.
By the end of 1999, 401(k) investors had nearly 73 percent of their money in stock mutual funds or in their employer's stock, compared with 63 percent in 1996, when the glory days of the bull market were just beginning, according to the new research.
"The concern has always been that, left to their own devices, people would be too conservative with their retirement money," says Sarah Holden, a senior economist at the Investment Company Institute, which conducted the study with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
"But there's a good percentage of the money that's invested in equities," says Holden, wrote the study with Temple University professor Jack VanDerhei.
Yet the study, which carries a lot of weight because it is based on a database that covers about 11 percent of all 401(k) plans and about 26 percent of all 401(k) participants, also found that some investors are doing a better job than others.
Many of the youngest and lowest-paid investors still tend to be too conservative, and workers with the option of putting some of their money into their employer's stock often have accounts that are dangerously concentrated on a single investment.
Of course, it was easy for investors to pump more money into riskier investments, like stocks, during the second half of the 1990s because share prices kept going up and up and up.
That all changed last year, when stock prices fell and the once high-flying Nasdaq endured its worst drubbing ever. The study doesn't address how retirement investors reacted to last year's decline.
Yet regardless of what happened last year, the more aggressive course that investors took with their retirement savings is likely to be a good thing in the long run. With retirees often needing to stretch their nest egg for 20 years or more, it's essential that they go for the faster growth that the stock market offers, on average, during their working years and, to a lesser extent, even in their retirement.
And as more companies drop their defined benefit pension plans in favor of self-directed retirement accounts like 401(k) programs, workers are being asked to assume more responsibility for making sure they'll have enough money to be able to retire and still live comfortably.
The Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund industry trade group, estimates that Americans have $1.7 trillion stashed away in 401(k) accounts. "401(k) plans represent a growing and important component of the financial net worth of many U.S. households," says Dallas Salisbury, the president and chief executive officer of the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
The study found that, while 15 percent of the accounts had balances of more than $100,000, 42 percent had less than $10,000. And the median account balance, which means half had more and half had less, was $15,246, or less than a third of the average balance.
Of course, regardless of how well - or poorly - you invest your money, how much you have in your 401(k) also depends a lot on your age, how long you've been at your current job and how much you contribute.
In general, the youngest workers can afford to be most aggressive, because they have plenty of time to ride out the stock market's inevitable ups and downs. Yet a disturbing trend found by the study is that 27 percent of the 401(k) participants who were in their 20s had no money in equity funds.
"Unfortunately, there are whole pockets of investors - young investors - who have no exposure at all to the equity markets," VanDerhei says. "There is a sizable number of young people who are investing very conservatively."
That conservatism also appears to be more of a factor for workers who aren't earning big salaries. The study found that 26 percent of 401(k) participants who earn between $20,000 to $40,000 a year don't invest any of their money in equity funds, while just 16 percent of wealthiest account holders - those earning more than $100,000 - shun stock mutual funds.
And investors who have the option of putting money into their employer's stock have to be on guard against having too much of a concentration in a single investment.
Some investors can't avoid putting some of their money in company stock because it often is the only way employers will match a worker's contribution. But the study found that workers who get an employer match in company stock often put even more of their own money into those shares, allowing that stock to account for nearly 48 percent of their balance.
"There is quite a bit of concentration in company stock," Holden says.
That lack of diversification could cause big problems if your company runs into hard times and its stock hits the skids. Even worse, if the company were to go out of business, you not only could be out a job, but also see a big part of your retirement savings disappear. That's why financial advisers regularly warn against putting too much money in the stock of your employer.