The incredible shrinking employee 401(k)

401(k)s are performing worse than they have in more than five years.

In a recent Workforce article, the Mercer consulting firm reported losses in every equity category posting during the first quarter.

The median large-cap growth fund tracked by Mercer fell 11.6 percent during the first quarter. Large-cap core and large-cap value funds dropped by more than 9 percent.

The good news is that the second quarter is off to a stronger start. The S&P 500 posted a 4.9 percent gain for the month of April, ending a streak of five consecutive negative months.

Not only are employee 401(k)s shrinking, but one in four employees will withdraw funds from their retirement account early, according to a May SHRM article.

The experts advise that employees only borrow against their 401(k)s when it is their absolute last resort. HR managers should educate employees on the impact borrowing against retirement funds will have on the long-term growth of their money, and also on the penalties employees may face if loans are not paid back.

A 2008 Wall Street Journal Online with Harris Interactive Personal Finance poll found that:

  • About 25% of American adults have withdrawn retirement funds early, citing the most common reason as a family member losing a job and the cost of a down payment on a home.
  • Almost 33% of those who have withdrawn funds early from retirement accounts cannot pay them back
  • People between 45 and 54 are more likely to be unable to payback retirement withdrawals.

Read the full SHRM article for more detailed information on the poll.

Laurie Ruettimann, former HR professional and outspoken blogger, shared a story yesterday about a company she once worked for who allowed employees to take loans against their retirement investments during a period of reconstruction. During the reconstruction, many employees lost their jobs and were forced to pay back their 401(k) loans in full within the 90 day period after termination date, or the loan would be treated like a cash withdrawal.

Ruettimann’s advice:
1. Don’t take a loan against your 401(k).
2. Don’t do it.
3. Just don’t.


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