“Is there a way to protect the growth on a 401K? From your post, it doesn’t appear that there is. It appears that the initial investment along with any growth is left to the mercy of the economy, market, etc.”
You actually can “take some money off the table” by switching it to the lower-risk options in your account, such as stable value funds, short-term bond funds and money market funds. The problem is that you won’t get much if any growth on that money going forward. And most of us will need a lot of growth if we want to retire someday.
Everyone’s 401(k) got hammered in 2008-2009. The people who made the damage permanent, though, were the ones who bailed out of the stock market and missed the subsequent run-up.
Investing in the stock market is scary, but over the long run stocks outperform every other type of investment and give us the inflation-beating growth we’ll need to retire.
So rather than trying to time the market, which doesn’t work, consider putting your anxiety to good use by reviewing your asset allocation—your mix of stocks, bonds and cash—and see if it makes sense given your goals.
How do you know the right balance? Your HR department may have resources, or you can use an online resource such as Financial Engines or Jemstep to give you advice. Another option is to simply use the “lifestyle” or “target date” options your 401(k) probably offers. These funds do all the heavy lifting for you, allocating your money and rebalancing automatically so your portfolio doesn’t get too far out of whack.