Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s new quarterly scorecard on 401(k) plan participation through its retirement and benefit plan services is in, and shows that those clients are mostly continuing to see positive 401(k) savings trends from their employees.
The firm’s 401(k) business comprises a total of $96.8 billion in plan assets and 2.58 million plan participants.
Of those participants, more than 1.4 million are currently contributing to their 401(k) plan, according to a report released by Bank of America Merrill Lynch on Monday. In the first quarter of this year, more than 297,000 employees started or increased their 401(k) savings versus 291,000 in the first quarter of 2011.
For the first quarter, 70% of the employees started or increased their 401(k) savings, while 30% either stopped or decreased their contributions. That compares to 75% and 25% for those actions, respectively, for the first quarter of 2011.
Kevin Crain, head of institutional retirement and benefit services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said that he is not concerned about that dip foreshadowing a larger economic regression trend. Instead, the numbers may vacillate from 75% to 70% participation, with 75% being the strongest point, he said, and still marks a significant difference from the 50% participation the firm saw just several years ago.
“To make that kind of move over the last two or three years … to be now 70/30 and above, that’s a great thing,” Crain said.
That positive movement can be seen with customers like J.B. Hunt, a transportation logistics company that enlisted Bank of America Merrill Lynch to help increase its 401(k) plan participation for its traveling force.
The Lowell, Arkansas-based transportation company had around 43% participation in its plans around 2004. Today, the company with around 16,000 employees has around 73% participation, according to Mark Greenway, senior vice president of human resources at J.B. Hunt.
“Historically truck drivers have not been very stable, they move around a lot, and so we had been relatively low participation in our plan,” Greenway said. “We’ve changed that over the past few years.”
To get to that increase, J.B. Hunt began using Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Advice Access plan feature, which works to help provide plan participants based with investment advice based on their individual circumstances. As employees complete their online open enrollment for benefits, J.B. Hunt’s employees are prompted to make a decision as to whether to participate in the 401(k) plan. From there, Advice Access can help them allocate their money for them.
Overall, Advice Access saw a 13% plan usage increase this quarter, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s quarterly report, out of the 475 plans that offer the service.
The quarterly report also shows a 23% rise in the use of Auto Increase, which automatically increases contributions for participating employees, from the 172 plans offering that feature. Auto Enrollment saw a 10% increase of use this quarter from the 285 plans that offer it.
J.B. Hunt, for one, has only been using the Advice Access offering so far, but may eventually look to expand its participation in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s offerings with Auto Increase, Greenway said.
“Knowing 27% of our employees aren’t saving for the future is still concerning, and we’d like to see more people in the plan,” Greenway said.
And from Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s perspective, there is also room for more growth, according to Crain. That could include expanding programs like Auto Enroll, which as of now has focuses mostly on new hires.
“This is a journey, this is an evolution. It continues,” Crain said. “We feel that we can do more.”