Next year, 401(k) plan participants will see the true cost of their retirement accounts for the first time – and many will not be pleased. In April 2012, long-awaited Department of Labor rules designed to improve fee transparency in 401(k) plans will go into effect. Consequently, many employers are changing their 401(k) plan provider in an attempt to lower investment fees and provide stronger investment options.
There is an old myth that 401(k) plans are “free.” In fact, in a 2011 survey conducted by AARP, 71% of plan participants thought they paid no 401(k) fees. For this reason, expect to hear a collective gasp when investors open their quarterly 401(k) statements in April.
In reality, the fees charged by poorly-managed 401(k) plans can be quite extensive – record keeping, fiduciary services, direct or indirect compensation for service providers (not to mention the cost of the actual investments) just to name a few. Sharebuilder, a nationwide manager of 401(k) plans, estimates that total annual costs for the average 401(k) plan is approximately 2.25%. Further, many registered investment advisors estimate that some 401(k) plans, especially those of smaller firms, could be as high as 3.5% to 4.8% per year.
This certainly doesn’t suggest that 401(k) plans are poor retirement vehicles. The tax-deferral, automatic contributions, and employer-matching benefits are paramount and should be utilized by nearly everyone with access to a plan. Fortunately, the benefit of the new disclosure laws coming into effect in April is that it forces employers to take more responsibility in ensuring their 401(k) plans offer high-quality investments at a reasonable cost.
Although these new laws have not yet taken effect, they are already beginning to serve their purpose. In preparation for complying with disclosure requirements, many employers are already doing additional due diligence and have discovered that their employees have been paying unjustified and unreasonable fees. Consequently, many employers are already making modifications to their 401k plans, or even changing their 401(k) provider.
Look forward to April 2012. Minimizing investment fees is just as important as obtaining a satisfactory rate of return. Be sure to speak to a fee-only financial planner when you receive your first quarter statement to determine whether your 401(k) plan’s fees are appropriate and to identify responsible actions to be taken.