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”.

 

A “Reasonable” Approach to Who Pays Plan Fees

plan fees

Written by Allison Brecher, Vestwell’s General Counsel

The recent barrage of litigation and emerging regulations about retirement plan fees have put plan sponsors on heightened alert to make sure the fees incurred by the plan are reasonable and that they are paid properly. It’s a difficult assessment to make, complicated by the broad array of administrative expenses, with confusing terms like back-end load fees, revenue sharing, and 12b-1 fees.  It’s hard enough for plan sponsors to understand what fees service providers are charging, much less whether the plan or plan sponsor should pay for them. However, it doesn’t have to be and there are plenty of opportunities for advisors to assist in making things more clear.

Depending on the plan sponsor client’s philosophy, sponsors may want to shift as much of the plan’s costs, like recordkeeping expenses, legal fees, and mutual fund expenses, to the plan and participants. Unfortunately, a plan sponsor can significantly harm the plan, and itself, by doing so without careful analysis.

Where to start?

The plan document may specify whether administrative expenses can be paid by the retirement plan assets. If the document says only the plan sponsor can pay, then the plan must reflect that. Some plans require the plan sponsor to advance the payment and get reimbursed by the plan later, in which case the payment and reimbursement should be made within 60 days in order to avoid a Department of Labor requirement for a loan agreement between the plan and sponsor.  If the plan is silent, then analyze DOL regulations to determine if payment by the plan is permissible. Costs relating to plan formation, termination, and design are typically paid by the plan sponsor whereas recordkeeping and investment consulting expenses can be paid by the plan.

The plan can only pay for reasonable expenses – but what is “reasonable”?

This is the central issue in dozens of lawsuits. Participants rely on their plan sponsor to negotiate the best deal with service providers and it therefore becomes the sponsor’s fiduciary duty to make sure the plan is only paying reasonable fees.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to understand all of the direct and indirect compensation paid to plan providers. Sponsors need advisors’ help to ask the right questions. Some expenses, like sales commissions and back-end load fees on mutual funds, are paid out of the assets’ investment returns and therefore charged indirectly to participants. Those charges may not be apparent on participants’ benefit statements. Worse yet, there is no single benchmark for retirement plans to use as a baseline comparison. For this reason, some sponsors prefer to pay for expenses themselves since only plan assets, not corporate assets, are within a regulator’s purview.

Advisors can help sponsors by reviewing the expenses paid by similar plans. All ERISA plans file Form 5500s annually, which are public and should disclose all fees paid by the plan. Making an apples-to-apples comparison can be difficult because some sponsors do not know, and therefore cannot disclose, all indirect compensation. Advisors can also help clients prepare requests for proposals to understand available pricing options, such as flat fees or per participant fees that are more transparent and easier to understand. They can also help evaluate the quality of services, since the DOL acknowledges that cost alone should not be the only determinative factor.

Monitor, monitor, monitor

Sponsors should periodically reevaluate the plan’s fees. Even though a sponsor hires consultants to assist, they remain a fiduciary and must regularly evaluate the changing marketplace. As always, documenting their decision making process is critical. Sponsors must also remember to check whether services are being provided by a party-in-interest and satisfy the prohibited transactions rules.