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Manage your 401(k) on mobile, up to a point

This summer hasn't been very kind to investors. After starting the year on the upswing, the stock market has slumped and is basically back where it started.
/ Source: The Associated Press

This summer hasn't been very kind to investors. After starting the year on the upswing, the stock market has slumped and is basically back where it started. This change in momentum may be causing you to wonder whether your 401(k) is on track.

Well there's certainly no need to wait for a quarterly report. And no need to be in front of a computer. Providers of 401(k) plans have gone mobile with new applications that allow investors to check balances on a smartphone.

But, wait a minute. Aren't investors constantly being reminded not to micromanage retirement funds and resist reacting to daily market moves?

Yes. That's why providers have built-in safeguards.

Fidelity Investments, which administers 401(k) accounts with 14 million participants, launched a mobile app earlier this summer. Although users can view their 401(k) account balance, year-to-date performance and several other measures, they cannot make changes to their account.

Still, as a major brokerage, Fidelity offers a separate mobile app to serve its individual investors. Fidelity first launched mobile trading in February, which enabled stock, option, ETF and mutual fund transactions over Apple iPhone and iPod Touch devices.

"We do encourage folks to take a longer term view with respect to their retirement accounts," said Beth McHugh, Fidelity's vice president of market insights. "Our hope is the more engaged participants are with their 401(k) plan, the more likely they are to be making the right decisions around how much they're saving and how diversified they are."

Even with the ability to buy and sell from their mobile devices, active traders have been taking it slow, she said. In practice, many monitor investment performance on their mobile device, but most still log on to a computer and do research before making a big decision.

Because retirement accounts represent the lion's share of investable assets for many customers, adding mobile account monitoring was necessary to keep up with consumer demand. McHugh said companies seeking a retirement plan provider are increasingly asking about whether mobile monitoring is offered or planned.

The growth of mobile apps for smartphones and for Apple's iPad has been explosive. Other 401(k) providers with mobile applications include The Vanguard Group and Transamerica Retirement Services. They, like the Fidelity app, works with Apple brand devices and can be downloaded for free through the iTunes app store at

Although they're rolling out at a rapid pace, a disadvantage of individual apps is that they must be programmed to work on specific phone devices. While computers have just a few major operating systems including Microsoft's Windows, Apple's Mac OS X, and Linux, mobile devices have about eight platforms. They include Android, BlackBerry, Apple's iOS, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Palm's webOS and Symbian.

To get around the expense of developing an app for each mobile platform, companies are increasingly releasing websites designed specifically to be viewed on mobile devices.

Within a year or two, mobile Web browsers will have capabilities equal to today's apps, said Michael Becker, the Mobile Marketing Association's managing director for North America.

This fall T. Rowe Price Group Inc. will roll out a website optimized for mobile phones that will allow investors to check balances, transaction history and gather other information from their investment and retirement accounts. The site will work similar to an app, but will be accessible across many mobile platforms.

There are also broad-based financial apps that allow you to monitor several accounts. The personal finance website offers an app to track spending from bank or credit card accounts, confirm loan payments, and monitor investment accounts including 401(k) balances.

Corey Krongengold, 36, of Hoboken, N.J., uses Mint's app to monitor credit card spending, a brokerage account and his 401(k) on a Motorola Droid X phone.

Krongengold, marketing director for a company that specializes in online interactive video applications, says viewing a retirement account balance daily is a novelty. Still, he likes the ability to check his when and where he wants.

"We're sort of infatuated with our 401(k)s and feel the need to check it multiple times a day, which is so absurd and counterintuitive," he said. "Over the last year it's actually been fun to check in and see I made $100 one day or $250. It was really very nice to watch it come back and go up."

Financial advisers get nervous when investors watch retirement accounts so closely.

"People can make hasty decisions from headlines they get on mobile phones or the Internet," said Brandon Ross, the Dallas branch manager and a senior vice president for Peak Capital Investment Services, a financial adviser based in Denver. "Sometimes they turn out to be the wrong decisions when people make investment changes on a daily basis. From that perspective it's real bad."

"What I would recommend is try to keep a long-term strategy and not go in and try to make adjustments every day," Ross said. "If you try doing that over the long term you're going to fail."