The Frugal Fiduciary Small Business 401(k) Blog
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After the death of his beloved mother, Harry Houdini was desperate to contact her from beyond the grave with the help of psychic mediums – who claimed an ability to communicate with the dead. Mediums were very popular at the time, but it didn’t take long for Harry to discover they couldn’t do what they promised. Upset, Harry became determined to expose their lies to protect unwitting customers. Like mediums, some 401(k) providers make false claims. Their lies can easily go unnoticed to 401(k) fiduciaries due to the highly-technical nature of 401(k) services. However, believing these lies – and hiring the provider that makes them – can trigger severe consequences. They often mask excessive 401(k) fees or a lack of expertise that can increase fiduciary liability. If you’re a 401(k) fiduciary, identifying 401(k) provider lies is imperative to mitigating your plan liability. The good news? Most are easily debunked with some basic facts. I’d like to channel (pun intended) Harry Houdini by exposing four of the most common lies told by 401(k) providers today.
In a 2015 study of 4,368 retirement plan participants, the National Association of Retirement Plan Participants (NARPP) found that 89% could not correctly calculate their account fees. Even more disturbing, only 42% knew they were paying fees at all. Most plan participants – 58% - were unaware that fees were being “automatically” deducted from their account.
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20 years ago, 401k plans were free. OK not really, but 401k providers used this lie a lot to sell 401k plans to small businesses that didn’t want to pay any out-of-pocket 401k fees. In truth, these plans paid “indirect” fees - like revenue sharing paid by mutual funds and/or wrap fees paid by insurance company variable annuities – to 401k providers based on a percentage of plan assets.
Small businesses have a fiduciary responsibility to pay only reasonable 401k plan fees. The problem? Too many 401k providers bury their fees in complex disclosure documents. When 401k fees are hard to find, it can be easy for 401k fiduciaries to pay too much for 401k services. When this happens, participant returns are handicapped unnecessarily and fiduciary liability is increased.
Meaningful 401k fee data is hard to come by – and that’s a big problem for small businesses. Sponsors of small business 401k plans have a fiduciary responsibility to keep 401k fees reasonable for plan participants. When this responsibility is not met, the consequences for 401k fiduciaries can be severe - including personal liability.
Recently, John Oliver lambasted the 401k industry and his own 401k plan with John Hancock on his HBO show Last Week Tonight. If you haven’t seen this show segment, you should check it out now - it was educational as well as hilarious. John Oliver’s main beef with his company’s John Hancock 401k plan was its annual fees - 1.69% of plan assets + $24/participant – which he considered excessive.