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A Checklist of Questions for Your Plan Advisor

You have a lot to do when it comes to running your business.  Any time you spend managing your 401k plan may seem like too much.

With this in mind, though, you still need to know what’s going on with your plan.  Why is your fund lineup structured the way it is, how much do you pay in service fees, are your fees reasonable and competitive, does your plan receive good value for the money, is your plan operating in a compliant manner, etc…

If you are like most smaller and mid-sized employers, you likely contract with an adviser to provide guidance on your plan.  In addition, your adviser might work directly with your employees. If so, most would agree that this represents an endorsement of your adviser’s guidance.  It’s important! Many of your employees’ current financial decisions, based upon your adviser’s recommendations, will impact their future.

Providing this type of guidance is a nice perk.  You should also benefit, in theory, from the good financial health of your employees.  But is the guidance smart and sensible?  Or confusing? Does your adviser use product hype or absurd assumptions?  Does the guidance promote other investment products that will benefit the adviser? 

With your limited time, you can use this simple list of questions to better understand the guidance your adviser offers:  

DO YOU ADVOCATE MARKET TIMING?

WHAT INTEREST RATES DO YOU USE IN RETURN PROJECTIONS?

HOW DO YOU DISCUSS THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE?

WHAT TARGET AMOUNT DO YOU USE FOR RETIREMENT INCOME?

HOW DO YOU CONDUCT AN ENROLLMENT MEETING?

WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON PAYING DOWN DEBT VERSUS INVESTING IN A RETIREMENT PLAN?

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TERM LIFE INSURANCE OR PERMANENT LIFE INSURANCE?

HOW DO YOU PRESENT AND DISCUSS RISK?

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO DISCLOSING PLAN FEES AND GENERAL INVESTMENT FEES TO EMPLOYEES?  

WHAT KIND OF FORECASTING DO YOU USE?

HOW DO YOU USE OR OFFER ASSET ALLOCATION MODELS?

Would it be inappropriate for you to ask these questions to your adviser and get their answers in writing?  Not at all!  This is a great opportunity.  By asking just a few of these questions to current or prospective advisers you will learn a lot about how their guidance might benefit or hurt your employees. For all the hype and nonsense I hear in the industry, there are many times when no advice is better than bad advice.

 

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Are 401k Fees Too Complex? Can Your Employees Understand Them?

NO THEY AREN’T AND YES THEY CAN! 

You and your employees understand the price of many things you purchase.  However many people are truly perplexed about their 401k fees.  Why the big mystery?  Do your employees care about fees?  Do they trust that you understand the fees?  Or do they feel like its pointless to find out because they can’t do anything about their fees anyway?

THE SITUATION

RETIREMENT PLAN FEES ARE A MYSTERY BECAUSE MOST FINANCIAL SERVICES FIRMS WANT THEM TO BE!  They are masters at making fees difficult to assess. The fees are never completely hidden, just hard to get to.  Think about it.  The price of virtually everything you purchase is prominently displayed.  Yet have you tried to read a fee disclosure or prospectus from a financial services firm? These ridiculously lengthy documents can confuse industry veterans.  Novices have virtually no chance.  The fees are in there somewhere.  But you have to find them and then figure out if they apply to your plan.

Things are getting better though.  Now more than ever 401k (and other employer sponsored retirement plans) fees are in focus.  More articles, more research, more lawsuits, more legislation, more comedians riffing on fees, etc.  (Yes, comedians are even making a joke of 401k fees these days).  The DOL required Fee Disclosure in the past several years (even though I think it has largely failed).

This is as it should be.  Most plans, and plan participants, are grossly overcharged.  While plan fees have come down, the fee reductions have been minimal – hardly anything to get excited about.  The current average for small plans is around 1.30% to 1.35%, depending upon the study.  They are down roughly 10 to 15 basis points in the past five to ten years.  Big whoop.  They are still absurd.  Fees will vary from plan to plan, but far more can get closer to .50% per employee.  Not all will, but many can. Even small, micro plans.

Don’t get me wrong – I would never expect the average person to be able to explain, in detail, their 401k plan fees.  Maybe a few can, but most won’t be able to.  But it’s not unreasonable at all to expect the average person to have a general sense of what they pay and how each service provider to the plan is compensated.

THE REASON

This comes down to the attitude of the employer.  If you make a commitment to helping your employees understand plan fees then it will happen.  You should demand that your adviser provide some type of basic education on plan fees.  Not an hour long seminar where they blather on about all their expertise, experience, competence, value, etc.  Something short and concise about each fee and it’s purpose.

Unfortunately, many employers don’t take this on because they aren’t even sure about their plan fees and don’t know if they are competitive.  They might be legitimately concerned that they cannot justify their fees – so why educate staff about them.  And if employees aren’t making a big issue of it, why bring it up?

THE SOLUTION

The employer should present to each employee a one page sheet explaining the important fees. These are the larger fees which represent the main costs of the service providers on the plan.    

The key figure for employees is the percentage of their account which pays for plan services and investments.  This is how much they pay.  Why can’t this be presented on one page?  Seriously – with one line item and cost for each.  That’s it.  Distribute it once a year with the updated percentage per person and new total plan costs.  Nothing fancy – no small type and endless disclosures.  Would this be so hard to produce and understand?

The idea that employees cannot understand their plan fees is ludicrous.  When you make a commitment to educating your staff about fees, and work with an adviser that will help you do this, the majority of your employees will have a better idea of what they pay.  In addition, you will them become better consumers of financial products and services they purchase outside of the workplace.

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Asset Based Charges – 401k Plans – Lawsuit – Inevitable

401k and other retirement plans that pay for either record keeping or advisory guidance as a percentage of assets are getting ripped off.  We explain here why employers should purchase these support services as a flat fee or on a per person basis.  It’s a great way to save big money on plan expenses.  Unfortunately, way too many plans pay the wrong way.

In the rash of recent 401k lawsuits, I haven’t seen any that tackle this specific issue.  Up until now.

The employees of Mass Mutual sued their employer over excessive fees in their 401k plan.  I suppose management felt like the plan they were providing to their customers was good enough for their employees.  The employees didn’t think so.  Apparently the employees only like their products for everyone else except them!

They settled for $31 Million.  They also agreed to eliminate paying for record keeping as a percentage of assets for four years.  Good.  Then what?  Are they really going to go back to an asset-based method?  Would they do something this stupid?

I assume we will see more retirement plan lawsuits based upon asset-based fee models.  It’s an obvious and easy target.  Employers can and should change how they pay.  If their current service providers don’t bill this way, they can find many that do.  

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The 401k and Pop Culture

The 20 minute segment by John Oliver of LastWeekTonight from early June has been making the rounds in the financial services industry.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here it is.  Very clever and – warning – with adult humor throughout.  Many laughs and the spoof commercial at the end is fantastic.

Generally speaking, his comments about the industry are spot on!  It appears to be motivated by the research they were doing on their 401k plan.  I was quite surprised they decided to take this issue on.  Seems like something that might not hold his audience.  In fact, he had to ask for their patience during the segment.

Their 401k with John Hancock is lame.  It is not “competitively priced” for new plans.  Yes, there are administrative costs, etc. for all 401k plans, but the fees built in to their product are absurd.  They are part of the problem – not the solution.

While it is a great segment, their focus on the benefits of working with a fiduciary is misplaced.  (BTW, PlanVision is a fiduciary – but we understand that how we are compensated is more important than whether or not we are a fiduciary.) Fiduciaries can rip-off their clients just as well as brokers! Fiduciaries are notorious for charging assets under management (AUM) fees.  AUM fees can create just as strong a conflict of interest as commissions.  In addition, most fiduciary AUM programs imply that they provide value by managing their clients’ money.  It’s a bunch of nonsense.  See here for an example.

The overall cynicism in the segment is fully warranted!  People are paying way too much for investment and financial planning guidance.  I was pleased he researched it and went forward with it. Great to see this important message for consumers show up in popular culture.

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401(k) Deception

We have all been in a situation where we have received completely conflicting information when shopping for products from different companies.  It can sometimes be easy to determine the right choice – other times its much more difficult.

It happens in other areas of life too.  For example, after our daughter’s birth, one of the nurses working with my wife told her that her mobility would be very limited – it was likely she wouldn’t be driving and moving around actively for three to four weeks.  A few hours later, the physician dropped in for an update and told her that she would be fine in a couple of days and encouraged her to resume her schedule as soon as possible!

Many fiduciaries at smaller employers are not well-versed in the ins and outs of 401k administration and compliance.   They are at the mercy of industry practitioners (like me). Understandably, it can be difficult to distinguish the truth from the BS.   It’s hard for large firms and even more difficult for smaller firms.  Unfortunately, in the small retirement plan industry, the BS is rampant.  Here are three examples I just recently came across:

EXAMPLE 1

I was reviewing the fiduciary liabilities and obligations with the office manager of a small firm. She had been tasked with the responsibility of exploring 401k options.  As a part of our discussion, I introduced her to the fiduciary codes 3(21) and 3(38).

I explained how these two types of fiduciaries are different and how advisers can share or take some of their liability.  Some advisory firms like PlanVision are willing to accept the liability of the 3(38) Investment Manager for plans.

She had discussed this issue with another consultant.  The consultant explained that they didn’t want to hire a 3(38) because they would not be able to change the investments in their 401k lineup on their own if they hired a 3(38) adviser.

In a literal sense, this is correct.  But how often is a smaller employer interested in making changes to their fund lineup based upon their own research?  Does it make any sense at all for a plan sponsor to do this?   NO.  It’s ridiculous.  Why would an employer, who has more than enough to do already, want to take on the liability of making changes to their 401k fund lineup based upon their own selection of funds?  Also, if they went insane for a while and decided they don’t want the 3(38) service from their adviser, they could just take it out of their contract.

EXAMPLE 2

I was contacted by an employee of a plan sponsor with a relatively smallish plan.  Not tiny, but small.  About 350 participants and $5 million in the plan.   She was doing research and, smartly, was hoping to include index funds in her plan.

Her employer’s plan adviser, however, told her they were not available for her plan – it was too small.   What???  Nonsense!  Their plan is not too small.  Plans of any size, including start-up plans, can use Vanguard Admiral Share Class index funds.

The real reason they can’t offer these funds is because many low-cost index funds won’t support revenue sharing! Too small?  Pathetic.

With low-cost index funds there will be administrative and support costs.  However, the record keeper can clearly separate out those costs so the employer can include low-cost index funds and the employees or employer can pay for all plan support services separately.

EXAMPLE 3

Similar to example 2.  An overseas employer with American expats inquired with PlanVision.  They are interested in implementing a 401k or 403b plan for their American staff.  During the evaluation process, they have become educated about the benefits of low-cost index funds.  They have a relationship with a large, well-known broker-dealer.  When they asked their broker if they could include index funds, they were told they could not.

Why not?  Why can’t their broker simply offer index funds and bill the plan sponsor directly for their guidance?  Because this would be too transparent!  It is simpler for the broker to hide their overall revenue if they can build it into the investments in the form of revenue sharing.  And, once again, it’s harder to share revenue from low-cost index funds.

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I’m an advocate of innovation and competition and believe they help consumers receive more value.  In the marketplace of ideas and services, there are legitimate differences in philosophy and process from firm to firm.  Understanding these distinctions is a buyer’s responsibility.

Yet many financial service firms intentionally deceive plan sponsors.  Yes, intentionally.  They know better.  In many cases, unfortunately, their business model relies on this deception.

Vanguard is a great success story.  John Bogle attribute much of their marketing success to candor. It’s easy to see why candor works so well in an industry with so little of it.

 

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The Truth About Investment Consultants and Advisers

I have been looking for a way to describe most of the guidance provided by those in the financial services industry. I’ve struggled with the best way to put it.

However, the quotable Warren Buffet provided a great take on how investors waste money on investment advice.  In this case, he is referring to “sophisticated” investors.  However it applies to everyone.  It’s happening as well with those we work with – middle class individuals and smaller organizations.

Here it is:

“Supposedly sophisticated people, generally richer people, hire consultants, and no consultant in the world is going to tell you ‘just buy an S&P index fund and sit for the next 50 years.’ You don’t get to be a consultant that way. And you certainly don’t get an annual fee that way. So the consultant has every motivation in the world to tell you, ‘this year I think we should concentrate more on international stocks,’ or ‘this manager is particularly good on the short side,’ and so they come in and they talk for hours, and you pay them a large fee, and they always suggest something other than just sitting on your rear end and participating in the American business without cost. And then those consultants, after they get their fees, they in turn recommend to you other people who charge fees, which… cumulatively eat up capital like crazy.”

And he had more:

“And the consultants always change their recommendations a little bit from year to year. They can’t change them 100% because then it would look like they didn’t know what they were doing the year before. So they tweak them from year to year and they come in and they have lots of charts and PowerPoint presentations and they recommend people who are in turn going to charge a lot of money and they say, ‘well you can only get the best talent by paying 2-and-20,’ or something of the sort, and the flow of money from the ‘hyperactive’ to what I call the ‘helpers’ is dramatic.”

I haven’t come across a better summation of what I have learned about the value of investment advice.  Keep your money.  Set up a well diversified portfolio of extremely low-cost index funds and…that’s it!

 

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403b Plans are Worse Than 401k Plans

Most non-profit organizations can offer either a 403b or a 401k plan to help their employees save retirement.  Since for-profits cannot use the 403b plan they commonly use the well known 401k.

When I talk with non-profits, we generally discuss the pros and cons of using a 403b plan.  Even though there are many technical differences between the two, they are quite similar.  Yet there are key differences which impact their effectiveness.  A big advantage of the 403b plan is that it does not require the ADP test, which is applied in non-Safe Harbor 401k plans.  This is huge!  Without this test, the Highly Compensated Employees (HCE) – yes, non-profits do have HCE’s – will not have their personal contributions limited by the average of the non-Highly Compensated Employees (NHCE). Many for-profits use Safe Harbor 401k plans just to avoid this specific test.

Another advantage of the 403b plan is that employees who work for more than 15 years can use a special catch-up provision.  Known as “Cap Expansion,” they can save an additional $15,000 more in their accounts (no more than $3,000 a year) after 15 years of service.

Other administrative requirements between 403b and 401k plans are similar.  But if you think they would be charged about the same to administer and support, you would be wrong.

With all of my experience with non-profits, I know fees in many of their plans are just awful.  I mean really, really bad. I think it has to do with the fact that the 403b has been around longer than the 401k and was originally targeted by many insurance carriers.  Many 403b plans have been using annuity based products or other broker-based products with excessive sales or AUM charges. Unfortunately, these excessive fees damage how much their employees accumulate for retirement.

How did this happen?  I don’t know.  Maybe they were just easier targets for the agents back in the day and many of these relationships are still dominant to this day.

Another possibility might be non-profits willingness to provide guidance to staff.  I believe that non-profits tend to be more supportive of their employees receiving personal guidance than comparable for-profit businesses.  This is to be commended.  Unfortunately, the fees for this support are disproportionately large to the amount of real guidance the employees receive.  The fees are not directly tied to the services provided – they are just wrapped into the insurance product, investments, or assets under management.

And to top it off, many of their employees are sold additional products and services – that are also overpriced!  It’s a double whammy.  

There are plenty of overcharged 401k plans.  But 403b’s have it worse!  Small non-profits can have much better plans – but it is up to the plan sponsors to get rid of the crappy, fee-laden providers that overcharge their plans and their employees.

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How Are Your Employees Influenced?

Every once in a while I recall how much influence I have on the people that I work with at my plan sponsor clients.  I provide guidance on their retirement plan and they often ask for additional assistance on other financial matters.

It is gratifying that I don’t feel the need to persuade them to buy other investment products or ideas.  I derive no additional compensation from them from the decisions they make on how to invest their funds in or outside the plan. In fact, our contract with our clients makes it clear that we cannot generate any additional revenue from staff (we have nothing else to sell anyway, so it doesn’t matter).

Last year I submitted a guest post for the White Coat Investor on sales tactics used by financial advisers.  I saw a very cynical though likely accurate comment in the follow-up to the blog.  In the thread I mentioned that it was disappointing that an employer was not vetting the presentations provided to residency students. The follow-up comment was: “No one vets anyone, anywhere.”

This got me to wondering how many employers take the time to review and understand the guidance provided to their employees?  Do they review the presentations to staff?   Do they ask to see what a retirement projection might look like?  Do they determine what interest rates their advisory firm is using in projections?   Do they understand what other products their employees might be purchasing from the broker or advisory firm?

I could list several more questions but you get the point.  I understand employers value the assistance advisers provide to their employees – this is what we do at PlanVision.  It can clearly make a difference in how well employees understand and get the most out of their retirement plan.  But it is also critical for employers to make a distinction between education and guidance and veiled sales presentations.

I am sure it is just me, but I think it would be great if the DOL added a field to the Form 5500 to indicate how much advisers or broker/dealers generate in revenue from non plan related transactions for employees still working at the employer. This could be required small plans and would be very revealing!

My wife took a new position and I was reviewing the paperwork she will use to set-up her 401k account.  The provider is well known in the retirement plan industry – Principal.  It struck me how the paperwork emphasized that she can transfer prior retirement assets into her new account.  Is this a big deal?  Maybe not.  But her new plan has higher fees than her individual IRA.

I am skeptical that Principal is objective in explaining this.   Based upon their revenue structure, they generate more revenue as the plan grows.  Of course, plan assets will increase with new employees,  more contributions, market growth, etc. This is good for the participants and the plan. But shouldn’t employees fully understand their options and the implications of their decision with funds they could voluntarily transfer into the plan?

It is virtually scandalous how financial services firms use smaller employers’ retirement plans as an opportunity to sell products to the plan participants.  If pressed on it, I cannot image any of these organizations seriously denying their intentions.  But until some employers  make it a point to limit product sales to employees, it will continue to happen.

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How a $1.6 Billion 401k Plan Figured it Out

I saw a note (link might be blocked) that a $1.6 Billion 401k plan decided that revenue sharing was, among other things, not a good idea for their plan.  Duh! Was it that hard to figure out?  What took so long?  They could have read this blog in 25 seconds and realized this.  But that would have been too easy.

They interviewed six different firms over seven months and used a consulting firm with an impressive sounding name.  I am sure they generated reams of documents with analysis as well.  I would guess that many people were involved in this process and there were multiple meetings and discussions and consultations and…  I wonder how much they paid for all of this amazing advice?

It turns out that they “negotiated” lower fees on some of their fund options. Congratulations! But does a plan this size really have to negotiate hard? All sarcasm aside, I applaud them.  They ended up with a better plan which will clearly save their employees money – which is great.  But will all due respect, HAVING A GREAT PLAN IS JUST NOT THAT HARD!  I could have told them how to do it in 30 minutes.  

I know they aren’t asking,  but my suggestion would be to write a three page Investment Policy Statement (IPS) and use a bunch of index funds from Vanguard.  Make sure that the IPS is written so that most of the employees in the company can understand it – not just a bunch of suits from financial services firms. Get rid of the consultant.  Save all of this money for something else more useful.   Simplify the whole thing.  Or, as Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  

 

Honesty

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

How important is candor, or an honest message, when you determine where and how to invest? The value of candor in the financial services industry came up in a recent interview with Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard.  Over the years he has said much, written much, and had much said about him.  The Bogle/Vanguard story is unique and compelling.

In this interview, he made a comment that I thought was profound.  It was brief and even simplistic, but it really struck me.  He was asked if the index fund had won.  As he answers the question and comments on the growth of the index fund as a successful option for all types of investors, he describes the index fund message as “…candor as a marketing strategy.”  Read the article in the link and look for the quote.

Though this is obviously true, I’ve never heard it expressed so eloquently.  The Vanguard approach to investing could not be any more honest.  Their core product, the index fund, is the market.  You get what the market delivers, less whatever it costs Vanguard to provide it.  A simple idea.  At this point in my career this is the message I want to buy and what I suggest my clients buy as well.

But how susceptible are you to the marketing stories and schemes common in financial services? Do you prefer a good story or are you willing to accept a less glamorous, honest message?  If you want your money to “work hard” for you, will the straightforward candor of Bogle and Vanguard win you over?

Unfortunately. I believe that most investors are not willing to settle for pure candor.  Vanguard has done an amazing job, but too many people want to believe in the message that someone can deliver more than the market.  In the financial services industry, too often great story telling and marketing trumps candor, and honesty truly is a lonely word.