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:  












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.


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!


Being Uninformed or Misinformed – Which is Worse?

I’ve heard skeptics on the quality of media reporting say that people would be better off being uninformed than misinformed.  Whether this is true or not of the media, it is certainly true of the financial services industry!  I don’t advocate that people be ignorant of developments in the financial markets or economy.  But I think they need to be careful about determining what type of information is helpful to their financial well-being.

This brings me to market updates and newsletters provided by advisory firms.   We decided when we founded PlanVision that we would not put market updates on our website.  Why?  For our clients, who invest and plan for their long term future, this information is not relevant.  It’s just noise which distracts from long-term goals.  

We don’t help people time the market or make speculative plays on stocks or bonds.  This is not part of a sound investment strategy.  As such, we’re not going to provide this information.  If we put it on our site, this would imply we think it’s helpful – that our clients should use it or be interested in how it affects them.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, THIS INFORMATION DOESN’T INDICATE WHAT WILL HAPPEN.  It is not predictive in the short or the long-run.  In fact we think its misleading or, even worse, harmful. Many professional and amateur investors use it to make investment choices.  Armed with recent market knowledge, they’re under the impression that they can predict how the markets or individual stocks or bonds will perform.   Good luck with that!

Do you or your employees really need to know what happened the last 30 days and why?  How one asset class may have performed compared to other asset classes?  What happened to short term rates in Japan?  How about leading market indicators?  The price of oil? Trends in clown shoe sales? Virtually all of this information that might pass for interesting facts, statistics, or ideas are useless in predicting market performance.  Cause and effect in investing, like many things, can be very evasive. For a little fun, check out some of these correlations from Tyler Vigen. 

However many advisers present this information on their site and in newsletters as though it means something and is somehow useful.  The truth is it just gives them something to talk about – a way to add value.   They can explain what happened and why it happened and how it may impact something next.  And based upon what is happening, and what might happen, they make recommendations.  Of course they’re guessing – but this is beside the point.  They are being paid a fee so they have to figure out what to do with all of this impressive data they collect.   

As a plan sponsor, what you expose your employees to matters.  Don’t provide information that doesn’t help.  The smartest approach for people preparing for their future is to budget, save, and plan.  And when it comes to investing, keep costs low, diversify, and select an appropriate level of risk.

The Do Nothing 401k Plan

What if your company’s retirement plan never required your employees to do anything!  Would this be a good way to run your plan?  How would it work? Consider this:

Your new 25 year old employee starts and on his/her first day of employment he is automatically enrolled at 6% and receives the company match of 3%.  The beneficiaries use standard defaults and the investments are defaulted as well to very low-cost target date funds.

Each year, with auto escalation, the contributions increase by 1%.  When your employee reaches age 35, the contributions cap at 15%.  They stay at 15% until they hit the IRS maximum or until the employee retires at age 67, whichever comes first.

Along the way, this employee never looks at statements.  They never change their contribution amount; never borrow or withdraw their money, and never have a question about their account. The contributions keep coming in – year after year. They spend their time budgeting, controlling their expenses, managing their health, and enjoying their life and their family.   They concentrate on the things they can control and don’t worry about the things they can’t.

Could you really have a retirement plan like this?  What would become of this employee (assuming they won’t go crazy working for the same company for 42 years)? Wouldn’t you be concerned that, without the help of the experts in the financial services industry, they would end up far short for retirement?

An employer would never do this because, ya know, you just can’t.  It wouldn’t be prudent, would it?  You have to hire experts to monitor your plan and make sure of whatever you need to make sure of.

And to be sure, no person would behave this way and I am not advocating for it. In fact, our business is based upon the notion that the value we provide in the form of guidance to organizations and individuals on their retirement plans will produce a better outcome for the plan participants.

But the financial services industry is simply filled with too much nonsense and jargon that passes for professional assistance.  Much of this guidance comes at a steep price – which acts as a drag on the earnings of plan participants.  It is an unnecessary transfer of wealth from people trying to save and plan for their future to the careers of those in the industry.

I am confident that this simple, do nothing approach would, in most cases, produce a better outcome than relying on an industry that spends millions on investments that try to beat the markets, more millions providing consulting services evaluating these investments, and even more millions on marketing dollars to promote these investments and consulting services.


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.


Why I Recommend Vanguard

BY USING VANGUARD FUNDS, I think my clients will have a higher likelihood of having more money in their accounts in the future than if they use comparable investments from other mutual fund companies.  Sounds like something Captain Obvious might say.

OF COURSE NO ORGANIZATION IS PERFECT.  Within Vanguard I am sure there are large and small disagreements on company direction. However, there are specific long-term aspects of the Vanguard approach which should help my clients achieve the best results.  The following are the top four reasons, in no particular order, that Vanguard helps me help my clients:

PROMOTION OF LOW-COST INDEXING.  Behind the legendary efforts of John Bogle, Vanguard has been the major driver in promoting the benefits of low-cost indexing, also known as passive investing, as the smartest way for people to invest.  They are not the sole provider of index funds, and there are many other champions, however they are clearly the leading proponents of this approach.

CONSISTENT MESSAGING.  By and large, the Vanguard message has been the same throughout the years.  Set-up a well diversified portfolio of low-cost investments and, thru the ups and downs, let the markets work for you.   Sure, they offer active funds and ETF’s.  However, their active funds are significantly less expensive than most and this has not diminished their advocacy of indexing.

VANGUARD DOESN’T PAY ADVISERS.  In an industry full of conflicts of interest, this is critical.  I receive no compensation or commissions from Vanguard to promote their investments.  Nothing. Zero.  Zip.  Nor do they assist my firm by sponsoring events or paying for our marketing efforts.  It has been liberating to provide my services to clients in a direct way.  My clients know exactly how much I make and who pays me (they pay us on a flat fee basis).  The guidance that I provide is no longer compromised by how I am compensated.

NO HYPE.  In all of my dealings with Vanguard, they have never hyped returns or products or “new” angles on investing.  This is very refreshing.  In my experience, I have come to believe that the more an investment is hyped by the financial services industry, the less good it is for the investor.  Of course education and guidance are important and part of the process in helping people become better investors and aware of their options.  But hype is something entirely different.  And I don’t get hype when I interact with Vanguard.

IT’S QUITE SIMPLE.  With my 20 years of experience, when I consider the factors important to investor success, I am confident that recommending Vanguard will give my clients the best chance to get the most return on their investment.

Can a 77 Year Old Have Dreams?

Is this an interesting or provocative question?  When do people concede their hopes for the future? How does it happen?  Certainly how a retiree, or an aging person, views their future will have a big impact on their quality of life.

Ken Dychtwald, founder of AgeWave, is a thinker on aging in America that I have been following for some time.   I enjoy his work immensely.  It has helped shape how I think of both my life and career.

In one of his talks, he relates the story of John Glenn’s effort in 1998 to go back into space at age 77.   At the time, this was met with some controversy.  There were those who thought it was a publicity stunt.  Dychtwald explains how, at a press gathering, Glenn was asked about this by a younger reporter.  Glenn’s response was: “Just because I am 77 doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams!”

Dychtwald relates this story in a very emotional and meaningful way.  I recall how he paused after sharing Glenn’s reaction to let the impact of his statement sink in.  It had a profound affect on the audience as it did me.

As you go through your day and life, don’t you find yourself thinking of the future?  Maybe the next 6 months or year.  Or maybe the next three, five, or ten years.   Sure, you may not want to travel in space, but you probably imagine yourself in a better place.  Your curious about what you will be doing and how you will relate to the important people in your life.  You wonder what might have happened and how things will have worked out.  What will you have accomplished?  What will you be like?

When does this end?  At what point do people spend more of their time reflecting on their past instead of looking towards their future?

This story reminds me of a sad moment over the Thanksgiving Holiday years ago.  I was visiting my dad’s Family in central Illinois.  My grandmother, in early 90’s at that point,  had given up on her future.  As we were talking, she said “I hate my life.”  She had lost her husband of over 60 years and her health was failing.   Her spirit and energy were gone – there was nothing to look forward to.  She was at the point where all hope was gone.

As you think of your future, and the future of the older people in your life, remember that having hopes, goals, and/or dreams is a great way to get as much out of life as you can.

What do you want to accomplish?  What is in your future?



Your Employees Act Like They Don’t Care!

The late Rick Majerus, a college basketball coach known for his sense of humor, told the story of calling a team meeting to address his team’s poor performance.  According to Majerus, his players were ignorant and apathetic and he needed to shake things up.  He started his discussion with his players by asking,  “Do you know what your problem is?”  One of the players responded by saying, “Coach, we don’t know and we don’t care!”

Those responsible for helping employees take advantage of workplace benefit plans may feel the same way!  Particularly when it comes to your retirement plan. Many employers struggle to engage their employees in the process of taking advantage of this important benefit.  You try different things, hire different service providers, come up with new angles, but you can’t get the success you want.  It can be easy to attribute much of this to employee apathy.

So how far should you go to help your employees prepare for their future?  Many employer’s grapple with this issue and it just came up in one of our clients.

As a part of our service, we enroll all the staff one-on-one during an in-person, phone, or video conference session.  To get them started, we initiate contact with each employee up to five times! The first three by email, the fourth by phone call, and the final by email again. Typically we never get to the phone call.  The relatively brief appointment we offer can be done during day, evening, or weekend hours. Almost all employees sign up without a problem.

However, some don’t!  They never respond – at all!!  This happened with a few new employees at one of our clients.  This employer has not had much of this problem in the past – their employees have always been responsive – so we discussed how to deal with it.  After confirming how rigorous, thorough and documented their process is they decided it wasn’t an issue.

In many cases, there is only so much you can do.  While it is smart and helpful to do what you can, you can’t make your employees save (you can kind of with auto enrollment – even though they can still opt out), learn about their investments, and plan for their retirement.  So is it apathy or is there something else going on?

People have a wide range of attitudes and experiences that will affect how they plan and save for their future.  And this is key: sometimes your employees are just not in a position to invest much energy and concentration in preparing for their future, or even in enrolling in your plan.  I am not providing a cop out – there are those that are just apathetic about it.  But others have issues in their life that prevent them from investing much time in the process.

I am a perfect example!  In the last six years I have gotten married, sold two homes, moved twice, had one child naturally, adopted another child through foster care (which is quite a process), quit my job to start PlanVision, and had my wife change her career and start her own business.  The point is not that I couldn’t have planned for my retirement – that is easy for me.  My point is that if I had really wanted to invest the time and energy to take on something else, like investing in an adult education program, or a new exercise plan, I am not sure I would have had the energy.

Many of your employees might be interested in planning for their future, but they are just not in the place to do it.  They could be overwhelmed with personal issues and uncertainties that are far greater priorities than putting together a retirement plan.  Maybe they are trying to manage personal relationships that are getting out of control,  maybe they are working two jobs; maybe they have health issues, maybe they are pursing additional education after work; etc.  There could be a whole host of circumstances that affect their ability and willingness to start the process.

Of course, people should not delay planning forever.  But many will get to it when they can.  They need to be in the right place mentally to focus on how to plan for their future.   It seems silly to point this out – it shouldn’t be that hard and it is clearly beneficial to have a plan.  However, most people can only take on so many personal projects at one time.  You might offer some nice services, but your employees will not fit their need for additional education or planning assistance into your retirement plan communication schedule!

It is not your responsibility to ensure a secure retirement for your employees! You have no control over how they spend money, how much they save, the lifestyle they lead, and all of the other decisions and factors which have a huge impact on how prepared they are for their future. You have limited control over how engaged they get in the process.  Do what you can to help and periodically let your employees know what is available, but be careful to generalize about their attitudes.  Sure, some might not be interested.  But others are just waiting for the right time in their life to start the process.  Hopefully it won’t be too late!

What has been your experience with this?


Statistics and Real People

If you pay attention to any media at all, it is hard to get through the day without hearing of a new survey or statistic about our collective health, eating habits, retirement preparations, school performance, crime rates, and anything else that can be measured.  “We” are either doing great, improving, or on the edge of a calamity!  What do you think of when you hear these type of reports? Isn’t your instinctive reaction to think about whether or not the results apply to you.  Don’t you say to yourself something like, “Well, that’s not me” or “That kind of fits my situation.” Of course!

By and large, many of us are concerned about ourselves.  This is not selfish or unusual at all and doesn’t make us bad people.  This is not to say, though, that we should not have some concern over how the local, national and international communities that we live and move in are doing.  But aren’t we primarily concerned about how these factoids apply to us?

In my experience, many of these statistics are far too simplistic.  They are general, as you would expect.  The results provide little context – they may not be meaningful in how they impact real flesh and blood people.  You see, the thing about real people is that we make decisions to adjust our life to the changing world around us and to the specific developments that directly affect us.

When it comes to the state of retirement planning in America, it seems as if there is a survey a day discussing the upcoming retirement catastrophe in America.  The reports are that some/many/most Americans have no savings, don’t understand financial matters at all, have too much debt, etc… There are a litany of problems that apparently will have much of society living out their retirement years in despair.

Is this really what will happen?  I am hardly convinced.  Many of these statistics are drawn from surveys in which many of the questions are simply too broad.  For example, these surveys will ask people if they believe they will have enough for retirement or how much planning they have done for their future.  In many cases, people simply don’t know if they are on track so they assume the worst. But just because they have not been planning does not mean they are necessarily in trouble.  Over the years, I have done many retirement plans for people and many of my clients were surprised that they were in far better shape than they anticipated because their expenses were low and under control.

Is it heresy to ask if every single American really needs to do a plan for their future?  Seriously! Keep in mind this is what I do for a living.  I enjoy helping people plan for their future, and feel grateful that it provides me a gratifying career.  I think everyone would be better off if they planned for their financial future and made informed decisions along the way. But not everyone gets around to it.  They just don’t!  Sure, they might make mistakes and it might cost them a bit, but it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they are going to end up on skid row if they don’t do a financial plan.  Some will muddle through and end up okay.  It may not be the best way to get there, but sometimes that is how life unfolds.

When it comes to the financial future of many Americans, I have concerns that many will not end up with the kind of retirement they want.  However, I think we are far from a retirement catastrophe. (I am actually more concerned about recent college grads, heavy tuition loan amounts, and their bleak prospects for significant and meaningful career opportunities). Many middle aged Americans are able to get their expenses under control and adapt to their situation by modifying their plans and considering work in their future.

Keep in mind that you are, well, you.  You are not an average or a statistic so be careful about how much to read into reports.  Survey stats might be interesting in the aggregate, but they often times are misleading and not necessarily useful to individuals.  Try to avoid the noise and get a handle on your situation – it’s the one that matters most!

What do you think? How do you respond to the daily onslaught of new “surveys”?

Advisers and Brokers Square Off

There is quite a bit of buzz about the status of advisers in the financial services world. The Department of Labor is pushing to require an adviser to employ a fiduciary standard when providing guidance to their clients on retirement assets (both IRA and employer based plans). This has actually been a debate for some time now. However, the President has weighed in recently supporting a fiduciary standard for retirement advisers so it has gotten increased attention.

With a fiduciary standard, an adviser is required to act in the “best interests” of their clients. On the other hand, a broker/dealer is only required to provide recommendations that are suitable for the client. As such, the argument is that a client will always be better off by working with someone that is working in their best interests. That sounds right, doesn’t it? I am not sure it is and I think this argument misses the point.

An important aspect of the debate in determining what is suitable is adviser compensation. It is argued that if an adviser is paid on commission instead of by a fee directly from the investor, they are less likely to work in the client’s “best interest”. While certainly not complex, I don’t think it is quite that simple.

Let’s look at an example. Assume a 62 year old wants to (or is convinced to) transfer $250,000 from their low-cost 401k plan. How might two advisers handle this based upon whether or not they are a broker/dealer or a fiduciary? Adviser A, the broker/dealer, recommends the client transfer their 401k to A shares with American Funds and invest in a mix of bond and stock funds. We will estimate that the client pays 2.5% on the investment. That would total $6,250. The adviser gets a portion of that, right? (Some goes to the adviser and some to the firm). Good payday – but maybe the adviser has been providing service and guidance to the client for a long time and has “earned” it. The client still pays the ongoing management fees of the funds going forward. Also the adviser will continue to generate income in the form of trailer commissions on the account.

Adviser B, the fiduciary, recommends a managed program that charges the account 1% a year. That would work out to be $2,500/year. (Again, some of this fee goes to the adviser and some to their firm). But that fee would change as the size of the asset changes. As the asset gets larger, say it grows to $350,000, the annual fee is now $3,500. What a great income stream for the adviser! In addition, the client also pays the various fund fees used in the managed program.

So, which option is in the client’s best interest? First of all, was it even advisable that the client transfer their money from the 401k plan? Maybe it was, but maybe it was not. We indicate it was a low-cost plan. However, neither adviser is paid if they recommend that the client keep his or her funds in the plan. It doesn’t mean that an ethical adviser would not make this recommendation. However, they clearly do not have a financial incentive to do so.

It is obvious that the client will end up paying a lot more, and I mean a lot more, in fees with the fiduciary. Of course, the fiduciary will argue that they get all of this awesome service, investment guidance, and value going forward. Maybe they do, but couldn’t a broker provide this as well if they want to maintain and grow their business. Sure they could – and many do. So in which case is the client better off?

Frankly, I think both of these options are pretty crappy for the client. In both cases, they are paying too much for help. (They could leave the funds in the plan or use a well diversified index fund with Vanguard and be far better off in my opinion). But in both cases, the adviser has a strong financial incentive to promote the benefits of their approach, right? In fact, the fiduciary has a much stronger financial incentive to convince the client of the value of their 1% program, which continues to pay the adviser significantly year after year.

What I believe is most important is the total dollar amount of the adviser’s fee and how it is affected by the client’s decision, whether or not they are a fiduciary. In both examples, the adviser is well compensated – whether by commission or by fee. Fiduciaries have their own ”biases” and I get tired of fiduciaries promoting their “objective” advice while charging outrageous fees and claiming that they are working in the best interests of their clients.

FULL DISCLOSURE: PLANVISION IS A FIDUCIARY FOR ALL OUR CLIENTS. Regulation requiring a fiduciary standard would be, ya know, good for our business and all that – we would clearly gain from this requirement. But we would rather have our business promoted on its own merits than on misleading labels. We are proud of our model and how it supports our work with our clients. We decided to structure our business in this way for many reasons. However, it is not the idea that we can puff out our chest and call ourselves fiduciaries. We prefer being a fiduciary, but what is more important is the value we provide to clients at a low cost and how we have no financial incentive to push investors to invest their money in a certain way. So, in spite of the fact that it would theoretically be a boon to PlanVision if a fiduciary standard is required, we cannot get behind this.

By the way, while I am not a big supporter of this change, the argument of broker/dealers that the smaller investor will be left behind with this standard and no longer receive guidance is ridiculous. Give me a break! Whether or not this change goes through, there will always be opportunities for investors with modest portfolios to receive advisement. These investors don’t need hours of service, quarterly meetings, and endless reports they won’t read. They can do fine with straightforward, concise, affordable guidance.

In our recent Ebook How To Improve Your Employer’s 401K Plan, we encourage employers to work with a fiduciary. However, we are also careful to point out that there are many good broker/dealers and many overpriced fiduciaries. I have observed how “fiduciaries” make recommendations for products and ideas that I think are way overpriced. I also think they are guilty of many of the same misleading and ridiculous sales tactics used by broker/dealers. In fact, the word “fiduciary” might be one of the most overused words in the industry these days. It’s as if each firm is trying to outFiduciary every other firm.

Like everyone else, I do not know exactly how this will roll out (even though I think it will ultimately happen). I am not trying to be cute or contrarian with this viewpoint. I just don’t know if this will have the impact people think it might – it may have little effect on consumers. If people want real change, demand that all fiduciaries charge for their time instead of as a percentage of managed assets. I would be curious to see how many of the fiduciaries who promote the pristine nature of their model respond to that.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?