How retirement investing by 20-somethings has changed over years

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Young investors continue to focus their retirement investments in equities, but in the past 20 years, the vehicle for those investments has changed.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Investment Company Institute have compiled data on investor habits for the past 20 years, looking at saver habits in 1996 and at year-end 2015. In their research they found that millennials and the Gen Xers from 1996 both invested heavily in equities, but the 20-somethings from the ‘90s focused more on equity funds and company stock, while millennials rely “more on the automatic rebalancing feature of target-date funds to keep their assets allocated in an age-appropriate way as they progress through their careers,” says Sarah Holden, ICI’s director of retirement and investor research.

The EBRI/ICI database also shows that more 401(k) plan participants held equities at the end of 2015 than before the financial crisis hit at the end of 2007.

In 2015, 401(k) plan participants in their 20s held 80% of their aggregate retirement assets in equities, which is very close to the 77% of 20-year-olds who did the same in 1996.

In 2015, savers in their 20s allocated 28% of their assets to equity funds compared to 55% of those 20-year-olds in 1996. Their share of assets held in company stock has also decreased from 17% in 1996 to 5% in 2015, according to EBRI/ICI.

More than half of millennial retirement savers have their money invested in balanced funds, like target-date funds, which automatically rebalance a person’s investment portfolio over time. Only 8% of 20-year-olds in 1996 had their 401(k) assets invested in balanced funds.

“The extensive and unique EBRI/ICI database continues to be extremely valuable, permitting in-depth examination of 401(k) plan participants’ activities,” says Jack VanDerhei, EBRI’s director of research. The latest research “reveals that 401(k) participants in their 20s are diversifying their 401(k) investments in what many perceive to be an age-appropriate manner. In 2015, only 7% of these young participants had no equity allocation in their 401(k) plans. Moreover, 75% of this group had at least 80 percent of their 401(k) balances invested in equities in 2015, due in large part to the increased utilization of target-date funds.”

Target-date funds continue to increase in popularity among all generations, especially those workers who were recently hired. Sixty percent of recently hired workers held TDFs in 2015, accounting for more than one-third of their retirement assets. Among all 401(k) investors, investments in target-date funds increased to 20% in 2015, up from 5% at the end of 2006, according to EBRI/ICI, and nearly half of the plan participants tracked in the EBRI/ICI database held money in target-date funds.

On average, in 2015, 43% of participant account balances were held in equity funds, but many people don’t invest in equity funds at all. EBRI/ICI finds that 54% of participants held no equity funds, while about 16% of participants held more than 80% of their balances in equity funds.

The “percentage of participants holding no equity funds varied with age, with 71% of participants in their 20s, 49% of participants in their 40s, and 51% of participants in their 60s holding no equity funds,” according to EBRI’s Aug. 3, 2017, Issue Brief. Those employees who have worked for a company for less than five years are less likely to invest in equity funds and the percentage of plan participants holding no equity funds falls as salary increases, EBRI/ICI finds.

The EBRI/ICI database includes statistical information about 26.1 million 401(k) plan participants in 101,625 employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, holding $1.9 trillion in assets.

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