The number of defined contribution plans nationally fell in2012, although the total number of participants, and theircontributions, grew, according to a newly released analysis of Form5500 data.

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The analysis by the Employee Benefits Security Administrationdivision of the Department of Labor shows there were 632,970 DCplans that year, the latest for which data was available.

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That’s down from the 638,390 plans recorded in 2011 and evenfurther from the 669,157 in 2008. The financial crisis set off astreak of four consecutive years in declines in the total number ofDC plans.

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The EBSA data shows that the decline began even before the GreatRecession, a time marked by corporate bankruptcies and businessclosures.

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In 2000, there were 686,878 DC plans, a historical high. By2003, the number had fallen to 652,976 and by 2004 to635,567.

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Also read: More have access to retirement plans thanthought

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But the 2012 decline in DC plans (0.8 percent from 2011) isoffset by the fact that the total number of participants increasedby 2.5 percent. About 75.5 million people participated in DC plansin 2012, up from 73.7 million the previous year.

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What happened? The data shows that larger plans got even larger,while smaller businesses were pulling back.

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There were 76,320 DC plans with more than 100 participants in2012. That was an increase of 1,000 plans over the previousyear.

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On the other hand, smaller employers were pulling out of the DCmarket. In 2012, there were 556,650 DC plans with fewer than 100participants, down by about 6,500 plans from 2011.

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Year-over-year data since 2000 has mostlyshown declines in the number of plans offered with fewer than 100participants, with a small exception in increases in the two yearspreceding the 2008 financial crisis.

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In 2000, there were 629,245 plans with fewer than 100participants, more DC plans than have ever been offered tosmall-business employees.

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The diminishing access to retirement plans in smaller businessesis likely to be ammunition for those who argue the 401(k)-based system needs an overhaul.

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Also notable in the review of 2012 Form 5500s is the continued preference of the 401(k) model inthe defined contribution world. 401(k)s represent the vast majorityof defined contribution plans, and while total DC plans decreasedin 2012, 401(k) plans grew by about 3,000 plans, to 516,346plans.

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Also, in the vast majority of 401(k) plans (87.8 percent), theparticipant directs all of the investments made, according to theEBSA analysis.

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Participants direct part of their contributions in about 16,000plans. In about 47,000 plans, participants don’t control how theircontributions are invested at all.

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Perhaps the best news to be taken from the analysis of 2012 Form5500s is the increase in contributions by DC planparticipants.

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Contributions came to $352.8 billion in 2012, a 6.9 percentincrease from 2011, and the most ever recorded.

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As a historical reference, contributions in 2008 were almost$312 billion, before the effects of the Great Recession onunemployment had fully set in.

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Meanwhile, few will be surprised by the news that the number ofactive participants in defined benefit plans decreased again in2012 — for the 13th straight year.

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The number of DB plans decreased by 3.4 percent from theprevious year, and the number of active participants in DB plansdecreased by 4.2 percent.

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DB plans also continued to pay out more money than they took in.They disbursed $199 billion but took in $70.4 billion less thanthey collected.

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DC plans, by comparison, took in $19 billion more incontributions than distributions, though distributions rose 11.5percent to $333.9 billion.

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Nick Thornton

Nick Thornton is a financial writer covering retirement and health care issues for BenefitsPRO and ALM Media. He greatly enjoys learning from the vast minds in the legal, academic, advisory and money management communities when covering the retirement space. He's also written on international marketing trends, financial institution risk management, defense and energy issues, the restaurant industry in New York City, surfing, cigars, rum, travel, and fishing. When not writing, he's pushing into some land or water.