In 2019, the SECURE Act created Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs) – a form of “open” Multiple-Employer Plan that pools the 401(k) assets of multiple unrelated employers. Supporters claim PEPs can offer lower fees for plan participants and greater liability protection for plan fiduciaries than a traditional single-employer plan. In truth, a single-employer plan with an investment menu of leading index funds and flat administration fees can usually beat a PEP on both fronts.
The 401(k) industry has aggressively marketed PEPs since the SECURE Act made them possible. This support can seem odd when you understand that PEPs are more difficult for 401(k) providers to administer correctly than single-employer plans due to their multiple employer nature. It makes perfect sense, however, when you understand how PEPs can be more profitable.
If you’re in the market for a new 401(k) plan, you should be skeptical of PEPs. Their purported benefits are usually more myth than reality. Here’s what you need to know.
Myth #1 – PEPs Cost Less
PEP supporters claim that 401(k) plans need “economies of scale” – basically, lots of assets - to pay low fees for quality administration services and investments. In truth, the rise of passively-managed index funds has made this claim obsolete.
The reason? While 401(k) plans generally need a lot of assets to pay low fees for actively-managed funds from leading providers, all plans - regardless of their assets – can pay low fees for index funds from leaders such as Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab. The kicker? Leading index funds tend to outperform comparable active funds over time, net-of-fees.
Another benefit of leading index funds? Few – if any – pay hidden fees. That forces a 401(k) provider to charge direct fees – which are much more transparent – instead. In my experience, 401(k) plans with no hidden fees cost less.
How much does a single-employer plan with leading index funds cost? Assuming our fees, a 30-participant single-employer plan with $1 million in assets would cost about $2,300 in annual administration fees and less than 0.15% in average index fund expenses. I’ve never seen a PEP cost less.
Don’t take my word for it? Shop around.
Myth #2 – PEPs Lower 401(k) Fiduciary Liability
All 401(k) plans – regardless of their pooled or single-employer status - have the same basic fiduciary hierarchy. This hierarchy includes both fiduciary and non-fiduciary (“ministerial”) roles. In general, the fiduciary roles have discretionary power, while the ministerial roles do not. The named fiduciary sits atop the hierarchy with the power to delegate the other roles.
In most single-employer plans, the named fiduciary is the employer– which includes controlled groups and affiliated service groups. When an employer joins a PEP, they delegate the named fiduciary role to the PEP provider – called a pooled plan provider (PPP).
PEP supporters claim this delegation lowers the 401(k) fiduciary liability of employers. I think it does the opposite by giving a PPP the power to boost their profit by delegating the subordinate PEP roles to affiliated companies or by choosing investments that pay hidden fees.
Reality #1 – PEPs are Harder to “Monitor”
Employers have a fiduciary responsibility to “monitor” their 401(k) provider – to ensure the provider is doing a competent job for “reasonable” fees. To make this responsibility easy to meet, I recommend business owners avoid 401(k) providers with opaque services, investments, and fees - not to mention, conflicts of interest. There is no way around this fiduciary responsibility – even when employers delegate the entire fiduciary hierarchy to their 401(k) provider.
PEPs can be much more opaque and conflicted than single-employer plans due to powerful administration-related fiduciary roles that employers delegate to a PPP – making the PPP harder to monitor than a single-employer plan provider with no discretionary power.
Reality #2 – PEPs are Harder to Leave
Terminating a single-employer plan is usually a straightforward process because the IRS considers a plan termination a distributable event. Upon the termination date, plan participants can roll their 401(k) account to a new retirement plan or take a cash distribution.
However, this simple termination process is not available for PEPs. Why? Employers lack the authority to terminate their portion of a PEP. With no distributable event triggered by a plan termination, participants can be trapped in a PEP until they terminate employment or become eligible for an in-service distribution.
To create a distributable event for active PEP participants, an employer must establish a brand new single-employer plan, transfer the PEP accounts to that plan, and then terminate the single-employer plan. That can be a lot of work – not to mention, costly – for employers.
Reality #3 – PEPs Offer Less Design Flexibility
Each single-employer plan is governed by its own written plan document. These documents can be highly tailored by a consultative 401(k) provider to meet an employer’s unique goals and budget.
In contrast, employers share the same plan document in a PEP. In my experience, PPPs often limit an employer’s plan design options to basic ones that are inexpensive for the PPP to administer.
Pooled Employer Plans are Good for the 401(k) Industry, Bad for Plan Participants!
For about a decade, the 401(k) industry lobbied Congress to authorize “open” MEPs. They got their wish in 2019 when the SECURE Act created PEPs. Was this push a selfless act by the 401(k) industry to lower the cost of retirement for workers and make plan sponsorship less risky for employers? Of course not. Put simply, PEPs can be more profitable and harder to leave than single-employer plans.
The purported benefits of PEPs can sound attractive at first blush. Business owners should understand how they can, in fact, harm plan participants.