Even as market uncertainty persists, employees using Bank of America Merrill Lynch's automatic 401(k) savings plans are showing they want to stay the course when it comes to positive savings behavior, according to the firm's latest quarterly data.

The results come in the firm's 401(k) Wellness Scorecard detailing its second quarter results.

In the second quarter, more than 142,000 employees began or increased their contributions to their retirement plans, moving the number of employees taking those actions to date this year to 350,000. That pace is down from the first quarter, when more than 297,000 employees started or increased their 401(k) savings.

The results support Bank of America's new model, which includes a trio of enrollment features including auto enrollment, auto increase and advice access. The idea is that these features, when offered together, will reduce the action necessary for employees to begin and increase saving, while also offering targeted advice on their retirement outlook.

Compared to last year, more employers have adopted those programs and services, the report shows. The greatest participation increase has been for automatic increases, with a 16% rise in plans offering that feature, followed by an 8% increase in use of advice access and 7% increase in the use of automatic enrollment.


Combination of features

Currently, 10% of the plans are using all three features, up from 7% one year ago. That usage has the potential to go "higher and higher," according to Kevin Crain, head of institutional retirement and benefit services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

"We think the greatest health packaging would be auto enroll, auto increase and advice together," Crain said. "If a plan utilizes those three features, there's no excuse why that plan isn't well and the employees aren't well."

Some of the second quarter results also show that by making the decisions automatic for employees, while providing advice services, they are more likely to engage in positive retirement savings behavior, according to Michael Liersch, director of behavioral finance at Merrill Lynch.

Employees using the firm's advice access services, in particular, were less likely to be concentrated in a specific asset category, to use target-date or asset allocation funds incorrectly, to be concentrated in one company stock or to not contribute at all.


More interest in advice

At the same time, more than 52% of participants enrolled in the advice services provide more data to inform the guidance they receive. And more than 530,000 have signed up to receive electronic education materials about their retirement plan options.

"We see that employees are more interested than ever in understanding the ways in which they can make the best investment decisions to get them where they want to go," Liersch said. "These participants are really continuing to increase their amount of savings or [are] willing to start saving now, despite the uncertainty."

Lorie Konish is the managing editor of On Wall Street, a SourceMedia publication.

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