By: Gary Droz
As previously published on abcnews.com/money.
Try going to the drawer or file cabinet where you keep your 401(k) plan documents and taking a hard look at the list of investments your plan offers. Did you ever wonder how these particular investments came to be included in your plan’s offerings?
The superficial answer likely is that your company, as the plan’s sponsor, accepted an array of investments offered by a large brokerage or insurance company that provides investment platforms to employers. But the real reason is that instead of benefiting you, these investment choices often serve the interests of the firms your company engages as service providers for its 401(k) plan.
Your prospects for a comfortable retirement are probably being significantly lessened by conflicts of interest that often drive the inclusion in 401(k) platforms of poorly performing investments for which hardworking investors are charged high fees. This double whammy means that you aren’t getting good investment returns and that plan service providers have their hands in your pocket, taking big chunks of the returns you do get.
The most fundamental conflict involves the nature of investments offered in these platforms. The typical 401(k) plan offers only actively managed mutual funds. This means that investment managers buy and sell stocks in these funds in an attempt to beat the market. These managers typically have poor performance but receive high fees for that performance. This increases costs for investors.
I believe these costs are needless and merely lower net returns — the money investors get to keep. Reams of objective academic research show that the best long-term returns come not from these actively managed funds, but from passively managed, low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). These funds are called passively managed because, instead of buying and selling stocks in a mutual fund portfolio, they are managed to match independently constructed indexes, such as the S&P 500. This not only increases net returns by reducing costs, but also positions investors to reap the overall returns of the market. With actively managed mutual funds, investors suffer when investment managers guess wrong, and they do much of the time.
While many actively managed mutual funds charge investors between .6 and 1 percent per year, passively managed funds often charge between .05 to .15 percent. This difference has a huge impact on net returns over time.
Why don’t all plan providers offer passively managed funds in their platforms? The answer is that they wouldn’t trigger much compensation for plan service providers. There’s simply no financial incentive for plan bundlers to include index funds or ETFs.
This fundamental conflict is among many that are costing most 401(k) investors dearly. The most common types fall into one of these categories:
The federal government is seeking to eliminate this conflict by trying to classify all plan advisors, including brokers, as fiduciaries. Current federal rules don’t require brokers to operate under a fiduciary standard – a status meaning that someone is legally liable for putting clients’ interests ahead of their own. The federal government is seeking to eliminate this conflict by trying to classify all plan advisors, including brokers, as fiduciaries.
More broadly, regulators have mounted a major push over the last couple of years to reduce conflicts by requiring increased disclosure of the compensation arrangements from all 401(k) plan service providers. These new rules, adopted by the federal Department of Labor (DOL), require companies sponsoring 401(k) plans to assure that fees are reasonable in the current market. (Many employers, however, aren’t aware of this requirement, despite repeated federal notices.)
To assure low fees, plan sponsors need to know where conflicts lie, and the new compensation disclosure regimen is designed to reveal them. Yet whether this regulatory push will have the intended effect — and whether regulators succeed in classifying brokers as fiduciaries — is doubtful because the industry is fighting these efforts tooth and nail with squads of highly paid lawyers and lobbyists.
What can you do about all this? Perhaps more than you think. Your 401(k) plan may be the only area where the interests of the average employee and top executives are the same. Though executives often have additional retirement savings, many also participate in their companies’ 401(k) plans and naturally want to get the best possible returns.
Consider going to your human resources department and suggesting that plan officials push plan providers to supply low-cost, passively managed investments to improve returns for employees and executives alike. The response will probably be something like: “No changes are possible. They offer what they offer, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But there is. While seeking compliance with the DOL requirement to assure reasonable fees, your company can learn about alternative plan providers, perhaps by issuing a request for proposals. In those RFPs, your company could state its interest in passively managed investments. If the current provider can’t offer them, perhaps a new one could. Thus, your company could shop around for a better plan with better investment choices for lower fees.
Most people would be reluctant to take this case to HR. And most people have retirement resources far lower than they would if they had a better 401(k) plan.
Conflicts of interest ultimately result in a significant drain on net returns by escalating fees. The best way to minimize this damage is for employers to include conflict-free, low-cost investment vehicles in their plans.
MainLine Private Wealth was founded on the ideals of trust and integrity, so you can always count on us to be the advisor who sits on your side of the table.