Equity outflows within 401(k) accounts reached record levels last year, with $6.3 billion in equities transferred to other types of assets, according to Hewitt Associates. That amount more than doubled the previous highest transfer amount of $2.9 billion in 2002.
Equity outflows last year occurred in all but one month. By year-end, the combination of outflows and poor market performance trimmed the overall equity allocation in 401(k) plans by 14%, to 52.9%, the lowest since Hewitt began keeping score in 1997.
All told, 5.7% of 401(k) account balances were transferred among asset classes in 2008. That was another record high, and topped the previous mark of 4.1% in 2002. The average annual transfer rate is 3.3%.
International funds took the biggest hit last year, with $1.9 billion in transferred assets. That followed a five-year bull run with inflows of $4.2 billion into this class. The second-largest outflow came from U.S. large-caps, at $1.7 billion, which was another index record.
Balanced and lifestyle, or target-date funds, both experienced outflows-$1 billion and $529 million, respectively.
The largest inflows went to the three-fixed income classes. Stable-value funds gained $5.3 billion, bonds funds got $1.2 billion, and money market funds increased $459 million.
The big question now is whether these market-timing moves will be just another case of investors selling low and then, once the markets rally, buying high.