401(k) providers see participant calls surge in wake of historic Brexit

Call volumes rose in the first few hours of trading Friday as investors tried to make sense of what Brexit means for their retirement accounts

Jun 24, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

By Greg Iacurci

Retirement plan participants phoned their providers in a frenzy Friday morning as news of Britain's exit from the European Union caused severe market gyrations and investors wanted to know what it meant for their nest eggs.

Some of the largest record keepers of defined-contribution plans reported volumes to their participant call centers spiking higher than normal, reflecting how investor fear can rise in volatile markets.

Fidelity Investments, the largest record keeper of defined contribution plans, saw call volume for its 401(k) business increase 50% over regular levels for the first hour of business Friday morning.

U.S. stocks opened down 2.6% Friday as investors reacted to the United Kingdom's historic vote to leave the EU, known as Brexit. Financial markets had been expecting Britain to favor staying put.

The following two hours saw a slight tempering in activity, to levels around 20% higher than normal. Activity was close to normal around noon, according to spokesman Michael Shamrell. The majority of the calls were guidance calls, with participants looking for help and direction from Fidelity, he said.

Voya Financial, Empower Retirement and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. also saw an elevated number of participant calls. Voya's call volume climbed 28% compared to a normal Friday morning, spokesman William Sutton said.

Empower, which serves 8 million participants on its platform, saw a 24% spike over normal volumes as of approximately 11 a.m. ET Friday morning, according to Empower president Edmund Murphy.

“When you get these kind of events, it tends to lead to higher volumes,” Mr. Murphy said.

MassMutual fielded double the number of calls compared with the previous Friday, with participants asking what they should do to react to the markets, spokesman David Potter said.

Market volatility in January this year caused a similar reaction from participants. On Jan. 4, for example, an all-time record of almost 4 million people contacted Fidelity either online or by phone to check on their retirement savings. Most of the time, however, participants aren't taking any ill-advised, knee-jerk actions during volatile times.

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