Several studies in recent years have highlighted the fact that a significant percentage of 401(k) plan participants don’t realize that their company retirement plan is not free. Further they were not aware that they often pay all or a portion of these expenses out of their plan accounts.
A 2011 study by AARP showed that 71% of the 401(k) participants that were surveyed were unaware there were expenses associated with their retirement plan. The survey also showed a high level of misunderstanding of plan fees even by those who were aware of them. More recent studies have also shown significant levels of both participants who are unaware of the fees and a high level of misunderstanding, even with the advent of required 401(k) fee disclosures in 2012.
Typical 401(k) plan fees and expenses
There has been an emphasis on the negative impact that high cost 401(k) plans have on the ability of participants to save for retirement via media. The 2013 PBS Frontline program The Retirement Gamble, for example did a nice job of highlighting the negative impact of high fees on retirement savers. Some of the expenses that are typical of a 401(k) plan include:
- Investment expenses. Here I am primarily referring to the expense ratios of the mutual funds, collective trusts, annuity sub-accounts, or ETFs offered as investment choices by the plan. Using mutual funds as an example, all mutual funds have an expense ratio whether you invest within a 401(k) plan or outside the plan. The key is whether the expense ratios of the choices offered by your plan are reasonable.
- Administration and record keeping. This includes keeping track of plan assets, participant assets, ensuring that salary deferrals and matching contributions are invested in line with the participant’s elections, generating quarterly statements, as well as various testing and external reporting functions.
- Custody of plan assets. This is where the money invested and the mutual funds (or other investment vehicles) are housed. Examples of custodians might be Fidelity, Vanguard, Schwab, Wells Fargo, etc.
- Investment advisor. The fees here are for an outside investment advisor who provides advice to the plan sponsor in areas like investment selection and monitoring and the development of an Investment Policy Statement for the plan. However, sometimes these charges are simply the compensation for a registered rep who sells the plan to company and may offer little or no actual investment advice.
Other than mutual fund expense ratios (investor returns are always net of expenses) these expenses may be paid from plan assets (your money), by the company or organization sponsoring the plan, or a combination of both. For example the plan sponsors who engage my services as advisor to their plan pay my fees from company assets so the plan participants bear none of the cost.
Additionally the delivery of these various functions can be fully bundled, partially bundled, or totally unbundled. Generally (and hopefully) the outside investment advisor is independent of the other service providers.
Providers like Fidelity, Vanguard, or Principal are example of bundled providers. They provide the investment platform, custody the assets, and do all of the administration and record keeping. In an unbundled arrangement, the custodian, record keeper, and the investment advisory functions are all separate and provided by separate entities.
Neither arrangement is inherently good or bad, it is incumbent upon the organization sponsoring the plan to monitor the costs and quality of the services as part of their Fiduciary duty to you the plan participant. Plan sponsors should insist on transparency regarding all provider expenses.
Mutual Fund expenses
The required fee disclosures that I mentioned above focus on the plan’s investment options and their expenses. You should start seeing them in the near future.
While they may not look particularly informative and don’t delve into the plan’s total costs, the investment expenses can be telling none the less.
If your plan is via a large employer, you may see institutional share class mutual funds with very low expense ratios. As an example my wife works for a division of a Fortune 150 company and some of the index funds available to her have expense ratios less than 0.05% which is very low.
In fact looking at the fund share classes offered by your plan is also revealing.
The American Funds offer six share classes for retirement plans ranging from R1 to R6. Using the popular American Funds EuroPacific Growth fund as an example you can see the differences in the expenses and the impact on return below.
|Ticker||Expense Ratio||12b-1||5 Year return|
Source: Morningstar as of 3/14/14
Looking at this another way, $10,000 invested in the R1 and R6 share classes would have grown to the following amounts by February 28, 2014:
I think you will agree that this is a rather significant difference.
The 12b-1 fees are included in the fund’s expense ratio and generally go to compensate the plan provider, the registered rep or broker who sold the plan or other service providers. In the case of the American Funds you generally see the R1, R2, and R3 shares in higher cost, broker sold plans.
Similar share class comparisons can be made with other mutual funds in many other families including Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and even low-cost Vanguard.
According to Morningstar data as of 12/31/13 here are the median expense ratios for the following investment styles:
|Mid Cap Blend||1.16%|
|Mid Cap Growth||1.24%|
|Mid Cap Value||1.24%|
|Small Cap Blend||1.23%|
|Small Cap Growth||1.36%|
|Small Cap Value||1.31%|
|Foreign Large Blend||1.23%|
While these are median expense levels I would say that for the most part if the funds in your plan are at these levels they are too expensive. Index funds across these categories should be 0.25% or less.
Several studies have concluded that the biggest determinant in retirement success is the amount saved. None the less having access to a solid, low cost 401(k) plan as vehicle for retirement investing is a big plus.
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