How 401(k) participants responded to the CARES Act and market volatility in April

Although many people are calling this the new normal, there's nothing normal about it. Stock markets have stopped their free fall—for now—but they continue to rattle investors. Restrictions on daily life are starting to ease, and some businesses are starting to open. But COVID-19 has inflicted a good deal of financial damage, and many Americans are starting to look to their retirement plans for relief. Our data shows the actions they're taking and how those compare with the old normal.

Because the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and its retirement plan provisions became effective on March 27, 2020, April offered us the first full month of data to see what actions people are taking. By allowing plans to temporarily ease rules on withdrawals and loans, and by temporarily removing the mandate to take required minimum distributions, the CARES Act offers participants some means of financial relief. We took a look at our participant data to find out what they're calling about and which of the CARES Act's provisions they're taking advantage of.

No big uptick in calls, contribution changes, or loans

Participant calls

Although call volumes into our participant service center haven’t increased over the last few months, the CARES Act is top of mind for many participants. The number of calls about loans and withdrawals was about the same month to month, but in April, coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs) and loans were among the top reasons for those calls.

Contribution rate changes

Only 3% of participants decreased their contribution rate in April, and although that's still more than the 2% of participants who decreased their rate in April 2019, it's still a small percentage (as is generally the case).


The number of participants taking loans from their 401(k) in April actually went down compared with both March 2020 and April 2019, but the average loan amount went up 7%, to $12,433. With the CARES Act, plan sponsors can temporarily raise the loan limit to the lower of $100,000 or 100% of the account balance (from the usual limit of $50,000 or 50% of the balance).

Withdrawals are up sharply as people take advantage of CRDs

Under the CARES Act, withdrawals of up to $100,000 are permitted without triggering the normal 20% withholding tax and 10% early withdrawal penalty if participants certify that either they or a spouse were diagnosed with COVID-19 or have suffered adversity related to the quarantine, a work furlough, or other hardships. 

April was really the first month that anyone had access to a CRD, as the CARES Act became effective at the end of March and it took some time for plan sponsors to adopt—or decide not to adopt—the provision. For the purpose of our analysis, we’re comparing CRD activity to in-service withdrawal activity.

CRDs are driving a huge increase in withdrawals, as April withdrawals (CRDs and in service combined) are more than 200% greater than those taken in March 2020 or in April 2019. As of May 12, the number of CRDs taken in that month had already surpassed the number for all of April.


We also see big changes in participants' investment behavior. Sixty-three percent more participants made changes to the types of investments in their 401(k)s this April compared with last April, and they're making very different changes this year, with some seeking to capitalize on the down market and others seeking shelter from the volatility. The number one investment change this past month was to move out of stable value and into a diversified fund.

  Top investment changes in April 2020    Top investment changes in April 2019
1 From stable value/fixed-income funds to diversified funds 1 From diversified funds to stable value/fixed-income funds
2 From diversified funds to stable value/fixed-income funds 2 From equities to diversified funds
3 From diversified funds to equities 3 Rediversified their portfolio
4 From diversified funds to target-date funds (TDFs) 4 From diversified funds to TDFs
5 Rediversified their portfolio 5 From diversified funds to equities

The actions taken varied greatly by age group. Although the investments they chose within each strategy varied, generally, younger people stayed in the market and older people were more conservative. Even so, we saw almost as many people in their 50s and 60s moving out of stable value and fixed income compared with into them—again showing that, while some are seeking shelter, others see potential opportunity in the down market.

Investment changes made by age group  <30 30–39 40–49 50–59 60+
Stayed in the market, either diversifying into equities, TDFs or diversified funds; or rediversifying 69% 49% 43% 34% 26%
Moved from stable value/fixed-income funds into diversified funds or TDFs 15% 25% 28% 28% 29%
Moved money into stable value/fixed-income funds 8% 15% 17% 23% 31%

What does the activity mean for retirement plan professionals?

The new normal has spurred a good deal of activity among retirement plan participants, with large increases in people using their plans for liquidity and in making changes to their investment strategies. The suddenness of the current crisis and swift action of Congress with the CARES Act may have caught many participants with inadequate knowledge of how to respond

It's not too late for retirement plan professionals and educators to help participants understand how to respond to market volatility and how to weigh the pros and cons of taking loans and withdrawals from a retirement plan. That's not to say that people shouldn't take advantage of CARES Act provisions—and other potential help that may come from Congress—as the eased rules may be a lifeline for many. But plan professionals should make sure that anyone taking action is doing so with a full understanding of the implications. 

All data, unless otherwise indicated, is John Hancock’s internal data, as of 4/30/20.  

Fund categories were defined as target-date fund, stable value/income, growth and income, equity, asset allocation, and other. A participant in more than two fund categories was labeled diversified. A participant who changed from more than two fund categories to greater than two other categories or to asset allocation alone was labeled as having rediversified.

For complete information about a particular investment option, please read the fund prospectus. You should carefully consider the fund's objectives, risks, charges, and expenses before investing. The prospectus contains this and other important information about the investment option and investment company. Please read the prospectus carefully before you invest or send money. Prospectuses may only be available in English.

The content of this document is for general information only and is believed to be accurate and reliable as of the posting date, but may be subject to change. It is not intended to provide investment, tax, plan design, or legal advice (unless otherwise indicated). Please consult your own independent advisor as to any investment, tax, or legal statements made herein.


MGTS-P42343-GE  05/20 42343 MGR0519201188233


Lynda Abend

Lynda Abend, 

Head of Strategy and Transformation

John Hancock Retirement

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