The Frugal Fiduciary Small Business 401(k) Blog
Get the latest industry news, deadlines and tips you need to know to help tackle your fiduciary responsibility needs.
There are few industries where the phrase “you get what you pay for” is less applicable than the 401(k) industry. Equally competent 401(k) providers can charge dramatically different fees for comparable administration services and investments. This variability is a big problem for employers – who have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of plan participants by paying only “reasonable” 401(k) fees. Employers that fail to meet their responsibility can be personally liable for restoring participant losses due to excessive fees.
Employers have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the fees paid by their 401(k) plan are “reasonable” – so excessive fees do not reduce the investment returns of plan participants needlessly. To do that job, employers should ”benchmark” their 401(k) fees periodically by comparing them to industry averages and/or the fees charged by competing 401(k) providers. Sounds straightforward, but this information is hard to find and often harder to compare on an apples-to apples basis.
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Tens of thousands of dollars are on the line. This might sound a bit sensational, but when it comes to choosing the right type of 401(k) plan, this is true a lot more often than many small business owners realize.
When an employer is looking to hire a financial advisor for their 401(k) plan, my advice to them is always the same – only consider financial advisors subject to a fiduciary standard of care. My reason is simple - only fiduciary-grade advisors are obligated by law to give impartial advice. In contrast, non-fiduciary advisors can give conflicted advice that favors investments with high commissions – making it harder for employers to keep their 401(k) fees in check. Generally, investment advisers are subject to a fiduciary standard of care, while brokers and insurance agents are not.
Small business owners can have dramatically different goals for their 401(k) plan. While some want to maximize key employee contributions, others want to incentivize plan participation by all employees. Business owners have nearly endless options for meeting these goals – many with very different expenses. The process of matching 401(k) goals to available options is called 401(k) plan design.
Last year, we studied the plan designs of 2,767 small business 401(k) plans that averaged approximately 25 participants and $1M in assets. We found only 8.71% of these plans automatically enroll eligible employees who fail to make their own affirmative enrollment election. In contrast, a 2014 Willis Towers Watson study found 68% of 457 larger 401(k) plans include an automatic enrollment feature.