The Cost of Cell Phones and 401(k) Services in 1985.
I purchased my first cell phone in 1985. It was a Motorola DynaTAC model and it was more or less permanently attached to the center console of my car. “The Brick” was not portable, provided only voice telephone service and cost over $9000 when it was introduced in 1984. Today, a smartphone fits in your pocket, provides an unlimited number of functions and (depending on the model) costs just a few hundred dollars.
If you were a small business or professional organization shopping for a 401(k) provider in 1985, you would have also had few, if any, choices outside of an expensive insurance company to provide recordkeeping, investment options and compliance services. Today it’s a different story for these smaller plans.
The availability of low cost 401(k) recordkeeping, administration and compliance services for smaller plans today is very much a reality. Despite this fact, a shockingly high percentage of these smaller plans are still managed by bundled insurance company providers and are among the most expensive 401(k) options for smaller businesses, including physicians, dentists and attorneys.
Why We Put Up With High Fees.
The question we should all be asking is why insurance company plans so expensive. And more importantly, why do plan sponsors continue to put up with these high costs?
My answer? Insurance plans are expensive because the insurance companies know they can get away with higher fees. And many of these plan sponsors either don’t know or don’t care. They should.
Despite all of the sophisticated and expensive marketing and enrollment materials they provide to plan participants, insurance companies are often the least transparent in regard to plan fees. In many cases, their fees are simply buried in annuity contracts with employers. And when employers decide to change providers, surrender charges can hold them hostage. This makes it nearly impossible for a plan sponsor to meet their fiduciary responsibility regarding reasonable fees.
Are My Plan’s Fees Reasonable?
Plan sponsors have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that their 401(k) fees are reasonable. In practice, this requires that they calculate the “all-in” fees (service provider fees + investment fees) and compare these fees to 3 or more providers. This benchmarking process should be done on an annual basis.
Your fees don’t have to be the lowest available in order to be reasonable. But they must be justified based on the services received. At my firm, we work with 401(k) providers whose fees are transparent. In practice, lack of fee transparency is the most common red flag that your fees are too high.
What Do Variable Annuities Have to Do With High Plan Costs?
If your retirement plan’s provider is an insurance company, your plan’s investments are likely a variable annuity. Understanding the differences between a variable annuity and a mutual fund is key to unlocking the high fees typically associated with insurance providers.
Variable annuities are essentially mutual funds wrapped in a layer of insurance that renders the investment returns and income from the investment tax-deferred. This makes them an attractive alternative to certain individual investors who may be in higher tax brackets.
When used inside a 401(k) retirement plan, however, this is a distinction without a difference, since all investments returns inside of a 401(k) are already tax deferred. So, do variable annuities have other advantages when used in a 401(k) plan? Not really. But they present a number of disadvantages, including additional fees and onerous trading restrictions.
Wrap Fees, Surrender Charges and Commissions.
A retirement plan funded by variable annuities is structured so that participants do not directly own a mutual fund. Instead, they own “units” of an account that holds mutual funds owned by the insurance company. These units have a variety of wrap fees including investment management fees, surrender charges, mortality and expense risk and administration fees. Variable annuities also include a commission which is paid to the broker who sold them.
These fees can range from .25% up to 1.25% of assets, depending on the size of the plan. They are often estimated as a percentage of assets in 408b-2 fee disclosures, as opposed to stating the actual dollars that are being extracted from participants. Even more frequently, they are buried in dense and often confusing group annuity contracts with the employer. These hidden fees can be destructive to your long term financial health. A plan with total assets of $1 million invested in a group annuity with a 1.00% wrap fee would generate annual hidden compensation of $10,000 to insurance companies and plan advisors yet provide questionable participant benefits. And since these fees are variable based on assets, they are increasing over time.
Surrender Charges: Adding Insult to Injury.
One of the most devastating wrap fee consequences associated with plans funded with variable annuities are serious and onerous trading restrictions. Because annuity contracts are written with an expiration date, an employer who wishes to terminate the contract prior to expiration is subject to surrender charges often as high as 7%. While the industry defends these fees as an offset to the cost of setting up the plan, their true and obvious purpose is to hold plan sponsors hostage. They create a nightmare scenario for plan sponsors who wish to terminate their provider for poor performance or high administrative fees.
Revenue Sharing Arrangements: Hidden Fees
Revenue sharing arrangements are another source of hidden fees for participants. These fees are far from transparent and are often buried within the expense ratios of plan investments. Often identified as 12b-1 and sub-TA fees, these fees are used to indirectly compensate recordkeepers, custodians, TPA’s and advisors for services provided to the plan. Because the true cost of most plan services scale based on the number of plan participants as opposed to the total plan assets, these fees become increasingly expensive as plan assets continue to grow. They are seldom justified.
“I Own A Mutual Fund in My 401(k), Right?”
Variable annuities are often identified in marketing materials and other plan communications by their underlying mutual fund. This can lead some participants to conclude that they are investing directly in a mutual fund when in fact they are investing in variable annuity units subject to additional fees. As a result, plan participants who wish to invest in low-cost mutual funds may not realize that while the underlying fund has low fees, the unit expenses could be considerably higher. That’s not my idea of transparency!
Good News! You’ve Got Options!
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the smallest 401(k) plans had few options outside of variable annuities and bundled insurance providers. Today, the 401(k) landscape has changed. Mutual fund minimums have been reduced and lower cost share classes are available on most competitive recordkeeping platforms. Regulatory reform in recent years has mandated fee disclosure to both plan sponsors and participants. As a result, there has been an acceleration in the number of insurance companies who have sold or exited their 401(k) recordkeeping business in the past 5 years.
What Must I Do Now?
Insurance companies get away with high fees for two reasons: The first reason is that their fees are often intentionally hidden. True, fee disclosure reform has increased transparency somewhat in recent years, but insurance company fee disclosure continues to be among the most confusing and least transparent.
I have found that many, if not most, plan sponsors need help when it comes to properly identifying and benchmarking their 401(k) plan fees. You should ask your advisor for help if he is not already providing you with that service.
You should also understand how your advisor, as well as other 401(k) providers are paid for their services. Revenue sharing arrangements and insurance company wrap fees are often expensive and involve conflicts of interest that should be avoided.
Apathy and indifference among plan sponsors when it concerns high fees, however, is both expensive and inexcusable. Putting up with high 401(k) fees charged by insurance providers when there are far less expensive options available to smaller plans increases your legal liability, reduces participant outcomes and is a serious breach of fiduciary responsibility. Both you and your employees deserve better.
Brian C. Rall
President – Strategic Retirement Partners, LLC
Strategic Retirement Partners is an independent, boutique investment advisory and consulting firm providing plan design, vendor search, investment selection, fiduciary guidance and participant education to company sponsored retirement plans.
Strategic Retirement Partners, LLC is a registered investment advisor in the State of Washington. The investment advisor may not transact business in states where it is not appropriately registered, excluded or exempted from registration. Any information contained herein or on SRP’s website is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to make an offer or solicitation for the sale of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Investments involve risk and unless otherwise stated are not guaranteed. SRP does not provide legal or tax advice and clients should consult their attorneys and CPA for any strategy discussed herein or on this website.