Friday, October 15, 2010

More than Just Mutual Funds: A Peek Inside your 401(k)

There is no such thing as a simple choice.  We may be very familiar with the options available and we may know a large amount of details about those choices.  But when faced with making the decision, we often freeze, unable to decide and even questioning the whole process.

Just get behind someone at a fast food drive-up window and wonder how long does it take to order from a menu that rarely changes. Your 401(k), the defined contribution plan that many of us have, puts us in the retirement planning drive-up lane and forces us to make a choice.

Few people ever decide to drive on through without making a selection.  Once in the line, you are sandwiched in by the person in front of you, the car behind you and the prohibitive curb. This is your 401(k). This is your 401(k) menu.  Order now, pick-up at the second window, pay at the first and be satisfied with your choice in large part because there is no going back, no changing your mind or adding something else on to the pick you have made (without exiting your vehicle, which defeats the whole purpose).

This is where almost every 401(k) plan in this great nation fails.  Once you have been put in the drive-up lane, you are stuck. You are essentially given a select number of choices, many of which are easy to determine how much they cost in part because your plan is now loaded with index funds, which basically resembles your dollar menu.  Cheap and (portfolio) filing without a lot of extras.

Then the seniors portion of the menu, also bland (and bond-like), suggests that you can get value from your invested money by making sure you get your dollar back - or at least in theory. The kids menu has gotten smaller over the years your plan has existed because there is fear that if this portion of the menu were too large, you might find the restaurant liable for (actively managed mutual funds) choices that were too expensive and fraught with risk.  They could throw in a toy but you would want proof that you could purchase this item without ever being dissatisfied.

So they offer you menu items that you wouldn't expect.  These are items that would be better suited at a sit-down establishment where the big spenders go - not because they want to spend more, they just want to think they are more sophisticated than the general population.  This is the ETF (Echange Traded Funds) choice.

And then we have the value meals.  This portion of the menu dominates the process and in effect, bogs most of the line down if there should be someone who is indecisive. These are your target date funds, a combination of mutual funds tucked under one banner which suggest that you can pick a year in which to retire and the item you choose will not only be worthwhile, but will also fulfill its promise.

Everyday, folks drive up to their 401(k) plan and are forced to make a choice.  Everyday, your 401(k) plan is scrutinized by regulators. Everyday, 300,000 advisers go out to the field and, well for lack of a better word, advise.  That's 300,000 different drive-up windows, sponsored by just as many employers for millions of employees.  A daunting task indeed.  Which is why you are dissatisfied with the choices: you think that there is a better drive-up window someplace else.

Of those 300,000 advisers, the vast majority of them, according to Fred Barstein, the president of 401k Exchange "half have one employer plan. Half of those have at least three plans. Fifteen thousand or so, or about 5%, have at least five plans. Then there's the 5,000 or so elite advisers, who have at least 10 plans, $30 million and at least three years experience."  Mr. Barstein, who is also columnist for the Employee Benefits Adviser site, suggests that the fees that these advisers charge have dropped significantly in the past several years, which is good for the participants but makes it doubly difficult to make a living doing this sort of work.

Not only is the competition stiff, the drive towards least expensive and lowest risk has sliced the revenue stream in half. You might think this would be good for you, the 401(k) plan participant. Turns out, it hasn't been as good as you thought it was.  In this particular scenario, these sorts of plans have become more generic, less customized and inelegant.

When an adviser approaches your employer, the sell goes something like this: You want almost zero liability, almost zero costs, and near zero effort on your part and I, the adviser, will do this by offering target date funds and perhaps a huge basket of index funds and, if we can figure out how to squeeze one in, an annuity.  None of these offers your employees any guarantees, the adviser might suggest ,except for the annuity, which illustrates a distribution of retirement income and unfortunately comes with a cost (a trade-off of sorts).

Is it any wonder why you sit at the drive-up menu for longer than you should?  All of the choices look the same. And then there is the problem of getting you to order the product best suited for you. Here is where they suggest a sort of buy one get one free (or the matching contribution). By the time you get to the drive-up window, you may been sitting in line, waiting your turn for almost a year.  Then to get the other half of the buy one, get one free offer, you may have to wait an additional period of time (a vesting period that can be more time than you planned on staying with the company to get).

Then there is the super-fast lane where you are essentially put on a bus, driven through without access to the window at all.  The driver, your employer in this example, orders what they believe is best suited for you - take it or leave it. In this situation, you will be dropped into a target date fund and told that you can opt out (go hungry) or stay in and believe that this menu choice is probably the best one for you because someone thought it might be.  That someone is the adviser.

Now Mr. Barstein does suggest that at its rawest, it is about selling. Selling a plan involves training, partnering and a constant source of information. Much like fast food drive-up windows, who might consider your health as a passing interest in order to get you to come back, increase their bottom line with a salad and offset fears that their choices are not the best ones available (doing it yourself will always be more satisfying but more time consuming as well), your 401(k) plan is designed to fill you up.

The adviser and the plan sponsor hope you drive off happy and satisfied.  As long as you drive off and don't sue them.

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