Participant data provided by Vanguard in conjunction with the report sees "investors' overall positive sentiments about the 401(k) are matched by their actions." Through the third quarter of 2009, six of 10 Vanguard 401(k) plan participants have account balances similar to or larger than those of two years ago, despite the decline in stock prices.

The ICI also found that, despite suspicions to the contrary, plan participants are not tapping their accounts any more than they have in the past. Only 2.6% took withdrawals and only 1.3% took hardship withdrawals.

"If you would have asked us how long it would take to recover I think people would have guessed two to three years," says Mike Dozier, vice president of retirement services for Fidelity Investments. "By the end of the third quarter, only six months after the bottom of early March, the average account balance in our 401(k) book of business was back to even. Between the investment returns and ongoing contributions people, they had at least filled the hole back in."

Dozier credits much of that recovery to a willingness by participants to weather the storm and their reluctance to change strategy. Fidelity's exchange rate -- those moving money from equity funds to money market funds, for example -- increased only 2%. Since the market hit bottom, savings rates, on a per participant basis, have increased.

"The good news is that during that time period a lot of people did a lot of things," he says. "One thing they did was to ask for help. When you look at September through March and compare that to the six months prior, our contact rates -- whether people were walking into a branch, using the Web or calling by phone -- went up, in some places 11-fold. People were coming out of the woodwork looking for answers."

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.

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