I've just stumbled across some interesting research presented by Schlomo Benartzi to a recent ABI conference (you can download it here, scroll down to the last presentation). Basically he has taken a look at what sort of behaviour participants in US savings plans (401ks etc) have been exhibiting during the financial crisis. A couple of things that are useful to know about 401k plans are that you can take loans out of the fund, and hardship withdrawals, features that are often touted as possible features for UK savings vehicles.
Anyway here are some key findings -
No significantly increased transfer activity (ie shifting investments around)
Participation rates in savings plans are actually going up
No significant increase in loans from funds
There is an increase in hardship withdrawals, but it's still a tiny amount of employees (less than 0.2% of the total) utilising the option
No wave of enquiries or web visits that might indicate panic amongst savers
Very interesting stuff. It does suggest that people think of their retirement savings as a distinct pot of money and are happy to leave it for the long-term. Also it doesn't provide support for the idea that we should make it easier for people to access these savings early. I think this is an important point, as I think the industry would like to push the consumer down this path. The fact that the punters don't exercise the choice to access their money early demonstrates that in practice fears (which I shared) that people would deplete their savings ahead of retirement are misplaced. The one remaining question in my mind is whether insurers etc would charge more for these unwanted features. If not, then I don't see much of a problem. (Of course this might change if you started getting newspaper articles in the personal finance sections of the paper telling you how to leverage your savings).
Anyway, interesting stuff.