Not Knowing Your Plan’s Fees Can Cost You Plenty

By Allison Brecher, General Counsel, Vestwell

In order to make good investment decisions, it’s important to be informed. Yet one of the more impactful components of any retirement plan is also the area where employers and participants tend to feel least clear: plan fees. While fees are not the only consideration when creating your portfolio or selecting service providers to the plan, high fees can erode retirement savings for participants and can create fiduciary – ie: personal – liability for you, the plan sponsors.

Despite the risks, many sponsors don’t take the time to carefully examine their plan fees or, worse yet, needlessly increase their risk by overpaying service providers who may be charging “hidden” fees. What you don’t see can hurt you, but what questions should you ask to prevent these pitfalls?

First, let’s understand what services are being provided to a typical retirement plan. There are three general categories:

Investment advisory – investment advisors select the investment lineup that they believe is suitable for the plan.

Administration  – recordkeepers and other service providers keep track of the transactions in your account, such as payroll deductions and employer contributions, and make sure the plan is operated in compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

Direct charges – participants and sponsors are charged for services specifically provided to them, such as for loans, hardship withdrawals, or amending the plan.

All of these services are necessary to successfully operate a qualified retirement plan and, while there is nothing wrong with getting paid, the challenge is to understand how these service providers get paid, the reasonableness of the fee in light of the value of the services, and whether the fee has been disclosed. Unfortunately, it is often not as simple as just asking the service providers because these fees can be embedded in the expense ratios of the mutual funds offered in the investment lineup.

Given all this, how can you get to the bottom of what you’re actually paying and what you’re getting in exchange for those fees?

1. Start with the documents

You should have just received year-end fee disclosures that list all of the expenses paid by the plan. Those notices and the plan’s benefits statements will help you understand the total plan-related fees charged to their account. The plan administrator should be able to provide a list of all direct service charges. All of the expenses paid by the plan or individual participants should be clearly itemized; if they are not, you should probably ask why.

2. Understand share class

Very large employers get the benefit of being able to invest in institutional share classes, which often have lower costs. Some mutual funds create a share class specifically for smaller retirement plans, called Sub-TA fees, which include the fees paid to recordkeepers, plan administrators, or other providers. In other words, the providers’ fees are aggregated with the mutual funds’ expenses and therefore make it impossible for plan sponsors to separately identify and benchmark them. However, you can ask for them to be itemized separately. If you don’t know or understand your share class, you should find out. If you are in one with a high cost, you can insist that your plan be placed in one with lower expenses.

3. Understand conflicts of interest

If your plan provider is an insurance company, there is a good chance your plan’s investments are variable annuities and not mutual funds. Variable annuities are mutual funds owned by an insurance company “wrapped” or protected by an insurance policy, thus increasing expenses with “wrap fees,” surrender charges, or sales commissions in the process. Those fees can turn a low cost mutual fund into an expensive and illiquid investment. The same could be true for plans supported by a mutual fund provider, which has a built-in incentive to use its own funds as part of the investment lineup. Conflicts of interest are not inherently wrong; they just must be disclosed so that the plan sponsor can make informed decisions.

4. Ask about revenue sharing

While the word “kickback” could make you cringe, revenue sharing is just that—a payment made by a mutual fund to compensate service providers that use their funds. Salespeople, brokers, and insurance agents may receive finders’ fees for bringing new business to the mutual funds or negotiated loyalty incentive compensation. Regardless of the type of fee, they are all revenue sharing and they increase the investment’s expenses and reduce investor returns. Sometimes these fees are disclosed as 12(b)-1 fees, but sometimes fund companies pay different levels of fees through multiple share classes. You should ask your investment advisor or read the prospectus. Don’t overlook footnotes about how your plan expenses “may notinclude any contract-level or participant recordkeeping charges. Such charges, if applicable, will reduce the value of a participant’s account.” That is likely a red flag telling you there may be hidden fees.Ask your investment advisor whether it is receiving 12(b)-1 fees, the annual value of those fees, and whether your same mutual funds can be purchased for a different share class with lower revenue sharing fees.

5. Investigate transaction fees

These fees can be especially difficult to understand, yet they are one of the largest expenses that a participant can bear. Every time a mutual fund manager buys or sells the underlying securities within a mutual fund, there is a cost to the trade. Actively managed funds have higher transaction costs than passive funds, like index-based funds, and the participants’ investment returns are reduced by the cost of those trades. While transaction costs cannot be avoided entirely in actively managed funds, they can include brokerage commissions and other compensation paid to the service provider that should be scrutinized. Transaction fees can be found (often with some difficulty) in a fund’s Statement of Additional Information and annual report.

So how are the fees justified? There is nothing wrong with compensating service providers; again, they perform necessary services to successfully operate a qualified retirement plan. But sponsors must ask what services justify these fees and whether the provider yielded material results for participants and beneficiaries. In short, the question fiduciaries should be asking is:  Do these fees exist to pay for reasonable, legitimate, and valuable services that benefit participants of qualified retirement plans and enhance their retirement security?  Or do they exist to support the financial services industry at the expense of participants?

You can largely avoid these issues altogether by investing in lower cost mutual funds, like Exchange Traded Funds or Target Date Funds, and consider using service providers that are not financially incentivized to use certain mutual funds as plan investments. You should be asking yourself the ultimate question regularly:  Have I properly investigated and paid only those fees that were appropriate and reasonable? Hopefully after addressing the questions above, your answer will be “yes”.