Large 401(k)s Are Getting Hit Hard by Turbulent U.S. Stock Market

By Suzanne Woolley

Retirement funds are getting pounded by the turbulent U.S. stock market.

There are no positive returns so far this year among a list of the 100 largest 401(k) funds provided by data firm BrightScope, and all but 12 have posted doubled-digit losses. The ones that have done the best, suffering single-digit declines, are value-oriented or income-focused strategies, which weren’t whacked as hard by the recent slump in U.S. tech stocks.

Stock market information on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Friday, April 29, 2022. Technology stocks extended losses Friday as shares of what were once market darlings at the height of the pandemic headed for their worst monthly drop since the great financial crisis.

Surging inflation and fears that the Federal Reserve won’t be able to tame it without triggering a recession have sent stocks tumbling this year, particularly the richly valued, mega-cap tech stocks that swelled portfolios during the long bull market. The prospect of rising interest rates has also hurt bonds, and high inflation makes holding cash a tricky proposition.

In this tough market, single-digit losses lead the pack among large retirement funds. The best performer? The Vanguard Equity Income Fund (VEIRX), down 1.7% as of May 5. The lone index fund on the list, the Vanguard Value Index (VVIAX), follows it with a 3.1% loss. Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Stock (FLKSX) is in third place, down 5.7% so far this year. 

The income and value-oriented funds on the list aren’t nearly as concentrated in a handful of stocks as many pure growth funds have been, which has damaged their returns as popular holdings like Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc. have plunged. (The big tech stocks that some of the funds do own, such as Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. aren’t down as much).

While the Vanguard Growth Index has more than 50% of its assets in its top 10 holdings, the Vanguard Value Index has 21% and the leading value-oriented funds in 401(k)s have top-10 concentrations that max out around 32%. This diversification has helped dampen the losses for funds with a value bent, which look for stocks that are temporarily underpriced relative to their long-term prospects. The funds often own stocks in more defensive sectors like healthcare and consumer staples, as well as financials, which is one of the few sectors that could benefit from rising interest rates. The Vanguard Growth Index (VIGAX) is down more than 22% so far this year.

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