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Most savers resist temptation to raid their 401(k) plans amid Covid hardships

Lucy Lambriex

People taking advantage of temporary CARES Act rules that allowed for easier loans and distributions from 401(k) retirement plans increased slightly through November, a month before the Dec. 30 cutoff.

As many as 1.4 million people have taken a CARES distribution from Fidelity, about 5.7% of participants on their system, according to data through Nov. 30. The median distribution amount through Nov. 30 was $2,800, a slight uptick from the $2,400 taken through Nov. 12. The average withdrawal also increased to $9,600 from $9,000 in the same timeframe.

Data from Vanguard shows a similar trend — only 5.3% of participants made a CARES Act-related withdrawal and the median amount taken out was $12,800 through Nov. 30. A month earlier, the median withdrawal was $12,000.

"What this data tells us is that the majority of participants stayed the course, and that the CARES Act provisions were used exactly as they were intended to be used — by those experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic," said David Stinnett, principal and head of strategic retirement consulting at Vanguard.

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Who withdrew money

In March, the CARES Act made it easier for Americans under age 59½ to access funds in employer-sponsored retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts. Through Dec. 30, individuals can take out up to $100,000 from eligible retirement plans without incurring the usual 10% early withdrawal penalty and have up to three years to pay the tax liability on the money taken out.

It also made taking loans from retirement plans easier by increasing how much people can take out and extending repayment terms.

While most Americans did not take advantage of CARES Act-related distributions, those who did preferred taking a withdrawal from their 401(k) plan instead of a loan, said Eliza Badeau, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity.

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Even though the median amount withdrawn has gone up slightly, it is not cause for concern, according to Badeau. Some of the increase is because people who made earlier withdrawals from their retirement accounts took out even more money ahead of the December deadline, she said.

That further supports that most people with retirement accounts have been doing okay financially amid the pandemic, and that the help went to those who needed it most, she said.

In addition, Fidelity data shows that most CARES Act-related withdrawals have come from the manufacturing and health-care industries — 25% and 17.3%, respectively — both of which have been hit hard by the pandemic and related shutdowns.

Evidence of an uneven recovery

To be sure, that most people have not had to tap into their 401(k) accounts is not necessarily a sign that things are improving in the U.S. economy or going well for the majority.

"Entire industries have been decimated — that really has not happened before in the modern area," said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. "The recovery has definitely not been even by any stretch of the imagination."

The employees hit hardest by the pandemic have been the most likely to not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan — workers in restaurants, retail and leisure and hospitality. People of color are also less likely to have an employer-sponsored retirement plan than their White counterparts.

CARES Act provisions were used exactly as they were intended to be used — by those experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.
David Stinnett
principal and head of strategic retirement consulting, Vanguard

"People are not going to make withdrawals from 401(k) plans if they don't have them in the first place," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com.

"What this does show is that, ultimately, some of the social safety nets that people tend to believe are more prevalent don't exist as widely as we would like to think," he said.

There are troubling signs on the horizon for the economy. Unemployment claims remain stubbornly high, recent personal income and savings data show that any cushion from the CARES Act is gone and further Covid relief hangs in the balance, likely meaning a lapse in unemployment benefits for millions.

"To get to the other side of winter, I think we definitely need help of some sort to get there," said Konkel.

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