Many 'Red' 401(k) Portfolios Out of Whack

June 27, 2008 ( - A new study from the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research (CRR) found only 43% of the nearly three million 401(k) accounts examined had the proper amount of equity exposure.

CRR researchers classified the accounts as Green portfolios because the proportion of equity holdings was consistent with expert asset allocation advice. Among the remainder of the accounts examined, about a quarter were considered Yellow portfolios because, while they had significant equity investments, their equity exposure was too aggressive or too conservative.

Researchers Gary Mottola and Steve Utkus said 30% were Red portfolios with serious asset allocation problems ranging from no equity holdings at all to too much of a single stock issue.

Many participants failed to take advantage of additional diversification opportunities, such as diversifying holdings with international or small-capitalization stocks or high-quality bonds when offered, the study said.

“By not having green portfolios,” Mottola said, “participants are losing anywhere from 60 to 350 basis points in expected real return per year.”

The Vanguard research report suggested steps plan sponsors to could take to help alleviate the problem:

  • Encourage participants to consider target-date or balanced funds as well-diversified, "all-in-one" investment portfolios for retirement.
  • Enroll participants automatically into new qualified default investment alternatives, such as target-date funds or balanced funds.
  • Introduce a managed account investment advisory service.

"Regardless of the strategy you adopt, CRR research suggests that plan sponsors who pursue these approaches can help their participants improve expected returns or diversification levels (or both), thus enhancing their prospects for financial security in retirement," the researchers wrote.

The paper will be published as a chapter in a research volume on financial literacy, which is to be issued by the University of Chicago Press.

A summary report is available here .