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Retirement Plan Auto Features Delivered (Serious) Results in 2022

DC Plan Design

Automatic features served retirement plans—and participants—well in 2022, according to a recent report. 

In its 2023 Reference Point Annual Benchmarking Report, which concerns developments related to 401(k) plan design and participant behavior in 2022, T. Rowe Price reports that plan features such as automatic enrollment and automatic increases in contribution levels had a positive effect in a year roiled by factors that made saving for retirement a challenge. 

Bucking the Trends

Auto-enrollment allowed plans that adopted it to realize participation rates opposite those that did not. Absent auto-enrollment, T. Rowe Price reports in 2022, a mere 37% of workforces participated in a plan; with it, 86% did. 

More good news—they also report that in 2022 that positive effect became more widespread, with adoption of autoenrollment rising to 85% of employers. They add that the percentage of employers with auto-enrollment has now been growing for eight years. 

A Gentle Nudge

Employers also are increasingly putting in place automatic increases of contributions into retirement accounts, the report says. T. Rowe Price says that adoption of the auto-increase rose to 49% in 2022, while 48% did in 2021. 

The report adds that the trend of employers introducing higher default rates for contributions continues to increase. And it observes that a 3% default rate — which had been the standard default rate— was outpaced in 2017 by a 6% rate. This, T. Rowe Price says, is contributing to higher contribution rates. 

The average combined deferral rate stood at 8.4% in 2022, the report said, almost the same as the 8.5% in 2021. 

A Challenging Year 

The report suggests that the positive effects of automatic features in 2022 came at a good time since various factors — such as market volatility, inflation, and the specter of recession — created challenges for retirement plans. 

  • Average retirement account balances dropped in 2022 to $101,000, whereas in 2021, they stood at $124,000. 
  • Allocations to stock funds stood at 31.7% in 2022, down from 34.8% in 2021; at the same time, allocations to money market and stable value funds were at 9.6% in 2022, up from 7.5% in 2021. 
  • Despite the economic challenges in 2022, the percentage of plan participants who took out loans from their retirement accounts fell slightly in 2022 to 18.3% of participants from 18.5% in 2021. At the same time, the report says that the average loan size increased in 2022 to a 10-year high of $9,837.