Fidelity Investments says it expects its retirement assets to continue growing this year as both employers and employees become more engaged with 401(k) plans.

Beth McHugh, a vice president of market insight at the Boston fund company, said in an interview Wednesday that assets would rise as more employers automatically enroll employees in 401(k) plans and begin using features that let 401(k) contributions be automatically increased annually. "If we can auto-increase contributions to 10% or more, we are going to be able to help insure that more employees are really ready for retirement," she said.

Fidelity has seen a "huge" increase in the number of employees who want to be "guided" through retirement planning, McHugh said. The use of Fidelity's online planning tools rose 62% last year from 2008, she said. "Employees want more education through tools, advisers, seminars, the Internet and our phone centers," she said. "Advisers need to be encouraging [employees] to take a look at diversification and get them to save the maximum amount."

A Fidelity survey released Wednesday said that employees who continuously participated in a 401(k) plan for 10 consecutive years had increased their account balances nearly 150%, to $163,900, as of Dec. 31. McHugh said these investors diverted an average of 10.4% of their salaries into their 401(k) accounts. She acknowledged that such investors are rare. About 6.9% of Fidelity's 11 million 401(k) participants have maintained continuous participation for a decade, she said.

The Fidelity survey, based on all 401(k) plans it managed at Dec. 31, indicated that 401(k) balances had grown 28% last year, to an average of $64,200. McHugh said much of this growth can be attributed to stock price appreciation; the Standard & Poor's 500 Composite Index rose 26% during the same period.

The average salary deferral rate remained relatively flat for the year at about 8.2%, according to Fidelity, but the fourth quarter saw the continuation of a trend for more participants to increase their deferral rates than trim them.

McHugh said Fidelity is "starting to see indicators that employers" that stopped matching 401(k) contributions are considering reinstating them.

A survey by Hewitt Associates released this month said 80% of companies that had suspended or reduced matching contributions were planning to restore them this year. About 8% of employers stopped 401(k) matching payments in the recession, McHugh said.

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