In a May 2018 survey by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 19% of small to midsize employers claimed to be “very familiar” with the expenses paid by their 401(k) plan, while 34% were “not at all familiar.” The remaining 47% said they were only “somewhat familiar.” These results are surprising when you consider employers have a fiduciary responsibility to pay only “reasonable” fees from 401(k) plan assets - and can be personally liable for restoring any excessive fees paid by participants.
According to AARP, Americans are 15 times more likely to save for retirement when they can do so by payroll deduction through a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan. However, while most large businesses – companies with more than 100 employees – sponsor a retirement plan, 51 to 71 percent of small businesses don’t. In recent years, Multiple Employers Plans (MEPs) have been floated as a way to close this small business coverage gap. I disagree for a simple reason - MEPs fail to address the specific reasons why small businesses don’t offer a retirement plan today. I think single-employer 401(k) plans modeled after the Federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) paired with tax credits would do a better job.
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On August 31, President Trump signed an Executive Order on Strengthening Retirement Security in America. In the order, the President made it the “policy of the Federal Government to expand access to workplace retirement plans for American workers.” While I fully support the policy – not enough workers are covered by a workplace retirement plan – I don’t think the order’s proposals will motivate more employers to offer a retirement plan. Other changes would be more effective.
In a recent study, we found 79% of our small business clients pay 100% of their 401(k) administration fees from a corporate bank account – not plan assets. This approach is popular because it can mutually benefit plan sponsors and participants. While the plan sponsor can deduct these fees as a business expense, plan participants can keep their amount invested – where they can grow until retirement.
Over the past decade, several high-profile 401(k) fee lawsuits and DOL efforts to implement a fiduciary standard for professional investment advice have put 401(k) fiduciary responsibility in the national spotlight. Unfortunately, this attention has done little to help employers understand and meet their 401(k) fiduciary responsibilities. This confusion is a big problem because employers risk personal liability when these responsibilities are not met.
In a recent study, we found 79% of our small business clients pay 100% of their 401(k) administration fees from a corporate bank account – not plan assets. I am confident that percentage is higher than average because most 401(k) providers don’t give 401(k) sponsors that opportunity. Instead, they force sponsors to pay at least a portion of their 401(k) admin fees from plan assets by limiting plan investment options to funds that pay them hidden 401(k) fees like revenue sharing and/or annuity wrap fees.