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The Ups and Downs of Your 401(k)

For the past five years you have been watching your retirement account grow dramatically. You have been receiving 20 to 24 percent returns on your investments and now you're experiencing dramatic losses. Why is that?

The way the stock market has been taking a downward slide, many 401(k) participants have been experiencing losses. But last year, the average investment returned on the 401(k) balances declined by 4 percent. And one third of those investing in 401(k) plans have done so only over the previous five years, when returns averaged a gain of 20 percent.

The news of losses in 401(k) accounts caused a sharp increase in the number of calls and Web inquiries at the nation's biggest financial managers. For example, Fidelity Investment's Web site traffic jumped by 75 percent in the first week of the new year, and the Vanguard Group's Web traffic increased by 20 percent.

At this time, Vanguard is counseling its investors, saying that they should stick with a sound investment plan and remember that it's for retirement, not for immediate withdrawal.

"A one year setback should be something that participants in a 401(k) programs take in stride," said Sean Hagerty, spokesman for Vanguard. "They should understand it's part of the risk that they're taking for an overall retirement plan with a long-time horizon."

Fortunately, history may be on every investor's side. Only once in the last 30 years has the stock market suffered back-to-back declines. And during those 30 years, stock prices have risen more than 1000 percent.