Stocks have been sliding for months now, but many investors will realize the extent of their losses only after reading annual retirement account statements that are in the mail this month.
Americans invested more than $1.5 trillion in employer-sponsored retirement plans in 1999, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund industry group.
About 60 percent of those in employer plans had no other stocks, mutual funds or bonds.
And after one of the worst years ever for stocks, most investors will see more losses than gains in their statements. Many of the highest-flying tech stocks of the last few years ended 2000 off more than 50 percent; blue chips fell more modestly.
"Some 401(k) investors clearly are going to see, for the first time in quite a while, a lower than expected return," said Sean Hagerty, principal for The Vanguard Groups 401(k) group.
His group is preparing for up to 25,000 calls daily this month compared to the usual volume of below 20,000.
An increase in call volume and Internet activity is normal this time of year as investors fine-tune their portfolios or invest year-end bonuses, but their concerns have changed, he said.
"A theme of the calls were getting this year is, Do I have the right amount allocated to broad equity funds?" Hagerty said. "A year ago, we were getting calls asking if we could offer funds that were heavier in technology."
Hagerty said the company has included messages in mailings and on its Web site throughout the year to educate investors about the stock markets volatility, so they hope any losses arent too much of a surprise.
Meanwhile, Fidelity Investment said retirement-related phone calls and Internet activity jumped by as much as 75 percent in the first week of this year.