IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

The Persistence of Employee 401(k) Contributions Over a Major Stock Market Cycle: Evidence on the Limited Power of Inertia on Savings Behavior


  • Leslie A. Muller

    (Hope College)

  • John A. Turner

    (Pension Polciy Center)


Many middle-income workers save for retirement through 401(k) plans. This study addresses the concern that low account balances of older workers may indicate that these vehicles are not sufficient to insure adequate retirement savings. In particular, the study shows that workers are not persistent (continuing once a worker has started) in contributing, and a weak stock market exacerbates the problem. The study suggests that the concept of inertia, which is in vogue in behavioral economics, does not seem to hold for 401(k) saving behavior. Furthermore, the investment strategy of dollar cost averaging does not seem to hold, either. Using panel data (Panel Study of Income Dynamics) covering a six-year time span from 1999 to 2005, the study presents descriptive and econometric evidence about the persistence behavior of individuals with 401(k) accounts. In particular, the PSID data that were analyzed come from four biannual waves in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005. Descriptive data show that of the sample of household heads aged 21-65 in 2005 who were employed in every time period, only about one-third (35 percent) contributed to their plan in all four waves. Job changing had an impact. However, even for individuals in the sample who did not change jobs, less than half (46 percent) contributed in all four years of the survey. An equation modeling 401(k) contribution behavior was estimated using logit regression analysis. When this model was estimated with the sample of individuals who were employed in each panel and with the sample of individuals who were employed in each panel and never changed jobs, the coefficient on the Dow Jones Industrial Average was positive and significant. Workers contributed to their plans when the market was up. This investment error is called herd investing, where individuals get into the market when it is high and not when it is low. The study concludes that the findings have important implications for the pension system and adequacy of retirement income. Projects of future retirement income readiness that assume that workers persistently contribute over their working lives greatly exaggerate the future levels of pension assets workers will have accumulated.

Suggested Citation

  • Leslie A. Muller & John A. Turner, 2011. "The Persistence of Employee 401(k) Contributions Over a Major Stock Market Cycle: Evidence on the Limited Power of Inertia on Savings Behavior," Upjohn Working Papers and Journal Articles 11-174, W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:upj:weupjo:11-174

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: This material is copyrighted. Permission is required to reproduce any or all parts.

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to search for a different version of it.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Juliet D'souza & William L. Megginson, 1999. "The Financial and Operating Performance of Privatized Firms during the 1990s," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 54(4), pages 1397-1438, August.
    2. Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes & Andrei Shleifer & Robert Vishny, 1997. "Privatization in the United States," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 28(3), pages 447-471, Autumn.
    3. John S. Earle & Klara Z. Sabirianova, 2002. "How Late to Pay? Understanding Wage Arrears in Russia," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(3), pages 661-707, July.
    4. J. David Brown & John S. Earle & Almos Telegdy, 2006. "The Productivity Effects of Privatization: Longitudinal Estimates from Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(1), pages 61-99, February.
    5. Simeon Djankov & Peter Murrell, 2002. "Enterprise Restructuring in Transition: A Quantitative Survey," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 40(3), pages 739-792, September.
    6. Alberto Chong & Florencio de, 2003. "The Truth about Privatization in Latin America," Yale School of Management Working Papers ysm436, Yale School of Management.
    7. Bhaskar, V & Khan, Mushtaq, 1995. "Privatization and Employment: A Study of the Jute Industry in Bangladesh," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(1), pages 267-273, March.
    8. János Kornai & Brian Snowdon, 2003. "From Socialism to Capitalism and Democracy," World Economics, World Economics, 1 Ivory Square, Plantation Wharf, London, United Kingdom, SW11 3UE, vol. 4(1), pages 33-71, January.
    9. Arnold, Jens & Javorcik, Beata, 2005. "Gifted Kids or Pushy Parents? Foreign Acquisitions and Plant Performance in Indonesia," CEPR Discussion Papers 5065, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    10. Megginson, William L & Nash, Robert C & van Randenborgh, Matthias, 1994. " The Financial and Operating Performance of Newly Privatized Firms: An International Empirical Analysis," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 49(2), pages 403-452, June.
    11. Andrei Shleifer & Lawrence H. Summers, 1988. "Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers," NBER Chapters,in: Corporate Takeovers: Causes and Consequences, pages 33-68 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Aghion, Philippe & Blanchard, Olivier & Burgess, Robin, 1994. "The behaviour of state firms in eastern Europe, pre-privatisation," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 38(6), pages 1327-1349, June.
    13. Roland, Gerard & Sekkat, Khalid, 2000. "Managerial career concerns, privatization and restructuring in transition economies," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 44(10), pages 1857-1872, December.
    14. Yundan Gong & Holger Gorg & Sara Maioli, 2007. "Employment Effects of Privatisation and Foreign Acquisition of Chinese State-owned Enterprises," International Journal of the Economics of Business, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 14(2), pages 197-214.
    15. Haskel, Jonathan & Szymanski, Stefan, 1993. "Privatization, Liberalization, Wages and Employment: Theory and Evidence for the UK," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 60(238), pages 161-181, May.
    16. Heckman, James J. & Lalonde, Robert J. & Smith, Jeffrey A., 1999. "The economics and econometrics of active labor market programs," Handbook of Labor Economics,in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 31, pages 1865-2097 Elsevier.
    17. Earle, John S. & Telegdy, Almos, 2002. "Privatization Methods and Productivity Effects in Romanian Industrial Enterprises," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(4), pages 657-682, December.
    18. Claessens, Stijn & Djankov, Simeon, 2002. "Privatization benefits in Eastern Europe," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 83(3), pages 307-324, March.
    19. Rafael La Porta & Florencio López-de-Silanes, 1999. "The Benefits of Privatization: Evidence from Mexico," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(4), pages 1193-1242.
    20. Jeffry M. Netter & William L. Megginson, 2001. "From State to Market: A Survey of Empirical Studies on Privatization," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 39(2), pages 321-389, June.
    21. Heckman, J.J. & Hotz, V.J., 1988. "Choosing Among Alternative Nonexperimental Methods For Estimating The Impact Of Social Programs: The Case Of Manpower Training," University of Chicago - Economics Research Center 88-12, Chicago - Economics Research Center.
    22. Gokhale, Jagadeesh & Groshen, Erica L & Neumark, David, 1995. "Do Hostile Takeovers Reduce Extramarginal Wage Payments?," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 77(3), pages 470-485, August.
    23. Boycko, Maxim & Shleifer, Andrei & Vishny, Robert W, 1996. "A Theory of Privatisation," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 106(435), pages 309-319, March.
    24. Narjess Boubakri & Jean-Claude Cosset, 1998. "The Financial and Operating Performance of Newly Privatized Firms: Evidence from Developing Countries," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 53(3), pages 1081-1110, June.
    25. Philippe Aghion & Olivier J. Blanchard, 1998. "On privatization methods in Eastern Europe and their implications," The Economics of Transition, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, vol. 6(1), pages 87-99, May.
    26. John Vickers & George Yarrow, 1991. "Economic Perspectives on Privatization," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(2), pages 111-132, Spring.
    27. Birdsall, Nancy & Nellis, John, 2003. "Winners and Losers: Assessing the Distributional Impact of Privatization," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 31(10), pages 1617-1633, October.
    28. Druk-Gal, Bat-Sheva & Yaari, Varda, 2006. "Incumbent employees' resistance to implementing privatization policy," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 59(3), pages 374-405, March.
    29. Nandini Gupta & John Ham & Jan Svejnar, 2000. "Priorities and Sequencing in Privatization: Theory and Evidence from the Czech Republic," Econometric Society World Congress 2000 Contributed Papers 1580, Econometric Society.
    30. Card, David, 1996. "The Effect of Unions on the Structure of Wages: A Longitudinal Analysis," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 64(4), pages 957-979, July.
    31. Kay, J A & Thompson, D J, 1986. "Privatisation: A Policy in Search of a Rationale," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 96(381), pages 18-32, March.
    32. Roman Frydman & Cheryl Gray & Marek Hessel & Andrzej Rapaczynski, 1999. "When Does Privatization Work? The Impact of Private Ownership on Corporate Performance in the Transition Economies," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(4), pages 1153-1191.
    33. repec:hrv:faseco:30727606 is not listed on IDEAS
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item


    private pensions; non-wage compensation; financial literacy; investment behavior; 401(k) plans; retirement savings; stock market cycle;

    JEL classification:

    • D14 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Saving; Personal Finance
    • J26 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Retirement; Retirement Policies
    • J32 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Nonwage Labor Costs and Benefits; Retirement Plans; Private Pensions

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:upj:weupjo:11-174. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.