Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

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With the release and subsequent repeal of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors dealing with client retirement accounts, much of the focus in recent years has been on the impact on advisors who provide advice to clients for their IRA accounts. Long before these rules were unveiled and then repealed, financial advisors serving 401(k) plan sponsors have had a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants under the DOL’s ERISA rules.

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Starting in 2012, retirement plan sponsors have been required to disclose the costs associated with the investment options offered in 401(k) plans annually.

As an illustration, here’s how the various share classes offered by the American Funds for retirement plans stack up under the portion of the required disclosures that deal with the costs and performance of the plan’s investment options.

American Funds EuroPacific Growth

The one American Funds option that I’ve used most over the years in 401(k) plans is the EuroPacific Growth fund.  This fund is a core large cap foreign stock fund.  It generally has some emerging markets holdings, but most of the fund is comprised of foreign equities from developed countries. The R6 share class is the least expensive of the retirement plan share classes. Let’s look at how the various share classes stack up in the disclosure format:

Share Class Ticker Expense Ratio Expenses per $1,000 invested Trailing 1-year return Trailing 3-year return Trailing 5-year return
R1 RERAX 1.60% $16.00 0.79% 9.61% 3.30%
R2 RERBX 1.59% $15.90 0.80% 9.63% 3.32%
R3 RERCX 1.14% $11.40 1.24% 10.12% 3.78%
R4 REREX 0.84% $8.40 1.57% 10.45% 4.09%
R5 RERFX 0.53% $5.30 1.86% 10.78% 4.40%
R6 RERGX 0.49% $4.90 1.91% 10.84% 4.45%

3-and 5-year returns are annualized.  Source:  Morningstar   Data as of 6/30/2019

While the chart above pertains only to the EuroPacific Growth fund, looking at the six retirement plan share classes for any of the American Funds products would offer similar relative results.   

The underlying portfolios and the management team are identical for each share class. The difference lies in the expense ratio of each share class.  This is driven by the 12b-1 fees associated with the different share classes. This fee is part of the expense ratio and is generally used all or in part to compensate the advisor on the plan.  In this case these would generally be registered reps, brokers, and insurance agents. The 12b-1 fee can also revert to the plan to lower expenses. The 12b-1 fees by share class are:

R1                   1.00%

R2                   0.75%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

Growth of $10,000 invested

The real impact of expense differences can be seen by comparing the growth of $10,000 invested by a hypothetical invest on June 30, 2009 and held through June 30, 2019.

  • The $10,000 invested in the R1 shares would have grown to a value or $19,606.17.
  • The $10,000 invested in the R6 shares would have grown to a value of $21,900.40.

This is a difference of $2,294.23 or 11.7%. The portfolios of the two share classes of the fund are identical, the difference in performance is due to the difference in expenses for the two share classes.

This analysis assumes a one-time investment of $10,000 and the reinvestment of all distributions. Morningstar’s Advisor Workstation was used to perform this analysis.

Share classes matter

The R1 and R2 shares have traditionally been used in plans where the 12b-1 fees are used to compensate a financial salesperson. This is fine as long as that salesperson is providing a real service for their compensation and is not just being paid to place the business.

With all of the publicity generated by the new DOL fiduciary rules one has to wonder if the expensive R1 and R2 share classes might go by the wayside at some point

If you are a plan participant and you notice that your plan has one or more American Funds choices in the R1 or R2 share classes in my opinion you probably have a lousy plan due to the extremely high expenses charged by these share classes. It is incumbent upon you to ask your employer if the plan can move to lower cost shares or even a different provider. The R3 shares are a bit of an improvement but still quite pricey for a retirement plan in my opinion.

To be clear, I’m generally a fan of the American Funds. Overall however, their funds tend to offer a large number of share classes between their retirement, non-retirement and 529 plan shares. While the overall portfolios are generally the same, it’s critical for investors and retirement plan sponsors to understand the differing expense structures and the impact they have on potential returns.

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