collage of red downward arrows (Photo: Shutterstock)

Trading in 401(k) plans spiked to near-all-time highs on Thursday, as equity markets experienced the sixth consecutive trading day of losses amid coronavirus fears.

In a note to clients, Goldman Sachs economists revised 2020 growth for U.S. corporations to 0 percent. United Airlines, Nike, Microsoft, and Apple are among the companies that have issued downward earnings revisions or warned of the virus’ top-line impact.

By the end of trading on Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average slashed nearly 1,200 points, the largest single day loss by points in the Index’s 124-year history.

Trading volume in 401(k)s was 11.37 times the daily average, according to the Alight Solutions 401(k) Index, which tracks the trading activity of 2 million savers with a collective $200 billion in account balances.

That marked the second highest day of 401(k) trading activity since Alight has tracked the metric, and only the third time since the financial crisis where the activity topped 11-times average trading.

“This is very rare territory,” said Rob Austin, vice president and head of research for Alight Solutions.

On Friday, equity markets were setting up for another multi-percentage point drop.

Prior to the close of markets, the DJIA was 14.3 percent of its high, well into correction territory. The six trading days it took for the S&P 500 Index to enter correction mode—a 10 percent drop of index highs—was the fastest on record.

Are savers not getting the memo to stay put?

In times of market shocks, record keepers throughout the industry arm call center representatives with guidance for 401(k) investors, typically along the lines of staying appropriately diversified and not panicking.

Yet despite the improvements in communication and outreach to 401(k) savers throughout industry, some investors just don’t seem to have received the memo. The question is why.

“It’s really tough to say why any messages have not come through,” said Austin. “However, behavioral economics tells us that people are much more likely to feel the pain of losses more than they are able to experience the joy from gains.”

There have been seven other days of high trading activity in 401(k)s since the beginning of 2020. But Thursday’s volume was more than twice the second highest day of activity.

“Also, when people see their 401(k) returns go in the red, it feels like there is a loss– even though it is only a ‘paper loss’ until any actual trading.  Very few people will stop and consider the opportunity cost of what they could have had if they remained invested through any rebound,” he added.

On Friday afternoon, Federal Reserve Chairman issued a statement, ostensibly hoping to calm edgy markets.

“The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy,” Powell said in a statement.

Thursday’s trading in 401(k)s represented 0.19 percent of the total assets tracked—high for sure, but a sliver of the overall savings.

“I think it is important to realize that many, many people are still staying the course.  While the activity is really high from a relative perspective, it is still pretty low from an absolute perspective,” noted Austin.